It was a pleasure for me to introduce Scene4’s July and August readers to theatre director-scholar George House (1942-1985), [q.v.]. The travel story I’ve chosen for this month was written between 1970 and 1974, on a winter break when he was an Assistant Professor at the Western University of Ontario in Canada (you’ll notice his flight goes from Toronto, the British spellings, and Sayvette, a Canadian department store). In 1974, he returned to teach and direct at U.C. Berkeley, where he had received his Ph.D., and became Associate Professor in 1978.
George wrote the following piece in the form of a travel diary—un journal intime—but it has much more shape and heft to it than a simple diary typically does. This is not a series of vacation anecdotes. He has given the story a central, first person character, who takes both literal and interior journeys in a vivid setting; he introduces a range of characters and motifs, and finally ties them all together in a purposeful and satisfying manner. Although I found the text only handwritten in his papers after his death, he clearly hoped to do something more formal with it when he could. He proofread, corrected, and made additions to the text. If he had lived, it’s nice to think this would have appeared long ago.
A central conceit of the story is that it is intime, but the traveler in the story has entirely the same persona George shared publicly; he is certainly recognizable as the person known to those who knew him in the theatre and the classroom. In his official obituary by the University of California at Berkeley, his colleagues referred to “his superb ability to handle historical scholarship and transform critical ideas into a performance that was both alive and beautiful,” and to his “unique and personal creative work that was both intellectually sophisticated and entertaining.” Here, if we replace “performance” with “story,” these observations hit their mark.
This “entertaining” aspect is inextricable from the story—that is, George’s very dry, often self-deprecating, wit. Surely on one level this is a humorous story of the Indignities of Travel, both his own and many others’—the dreamed-of vacations run aground in realities: not knowing how to hail a cab, getting lost, getting cheated in shops, being stuck with dull people one meets by chance, enduring the festive occasions that fall flat. Having the feeling that everyone you meet is the same as people you know at home—closely related to the “wherever you go, there you are” feeling. Realizing that portions—perhaps large portions—of your trip will be swallowed up in the logistics of getting somewhere else.
At the same time, George tells the story with such dizzying—and deeply characteristic—erudition, intertwined with the pop and the ridiculous, that the narrative seems to rocket forward. A gifted translator of ancient and modern languages, here he moves freely between English, French, and Arabic (dinner becomes the French diner, without the italics); a devoted scholar, now he leaps between different periods of history, literature, art. Sisyphus, Dante, Thomas Mann’s Tadzio, Huysmans’ Des Esseintes—they all co-exist, along with cracker jacks, Ubu’s toilet brush (the “balai innomable”), Jack Lemmon, the beauty pageant from hell, a monkey gland, and gold lamé wedgies.
Finally, though, we can’t ignore the sadness in the story—the loneliness, longing, disappointment, separateness—for which he had fading hope of a real cure. George, and the character of George, did pass through a painfully long, existential moment on this trip. And even though he gave much of it a stylish tone, it’s still true that the story is about two difficult journeys: one, his actual travels in Morocco; the other, the imaginative journey he made interiorly. What closed the chasm between them was his profoundly aesthetic nature. The aesthete’s paradox is that beauty and the life of the seeking mind are the sources of both sadness and happiness. That’s where we see the endearing alchemy particular to George House: he mitigates every road full of mud with “birds of painfully sweet melody”; he meets his own despair with pleasure in “clouds and pretty buildings” and
with the mirror of self-knowledge. Wherever you go, there you are, for worse and, sometimes, for better.
Un Journal Intime
George Stillman House
In the deepest Mahgreb. Long conversations with M. Chaounni, a short middle-aged postier. Why, with all the glamorous boys floating around do I find these post office workers? What’sizname in Pisa, remember—who wanted to know all the prices in America and then decided he was better off in direst poverty in Pisa. Yes, that was the summer of ’62. Now it’s the Moroccan Winter of Prof. House. You know, I actually did meet the Abdul I joked about before I left. A guide outside the Palais Jamaï. For 10 DH he, Vergil, takes you, Dante, thru hell. Well… a bit of the Inferno, a few thou. feet of Fellini, a touch of Sayvette. Images pass so rapidly—Black man with red feet, dyeing wool—the patron’s kif pipe: no coherence.
Terrible fight with the R.R. man. I don’t care if it is a way of life, I don’t like screaming—in public (or private). I was bilked out of the deposit at the Minzah. Neville, the British-Lebanese oil man started the shouting match over that one. The patron there—the archetypal M. Deux-Franc—called him (Neville) a bloody American. Said I was a gentleman—but he still kept my money. Well, I dined in splendour in a dining room virtually deserted except for the servants and the maytruh dee. Pleasures, yes. Food and soft chairs, damask and china. Neville’s “friend” Mohammed took us to the California Bar. Heineken and music from le Parrain. His (Ahmed’s) round brown body squeezed into mulberry jeans and tricot—gyrations and knowing looks. (Except Neville didn’t know.) Eyes black as kohl. However, while in the john a friendly Belgian queen (Sisters, divided we stand… no, no, I mean United We Stand, divided they catch us one by one) said: “Vouz ne connez pas le Maroc? Faites attention à ce garcon.” Well, thanks, dear… So I faited my attention and went home to my sumptuous chamber. I had, after all, travelled three days to get here.
Fèz, yes, fes… where I climbed the mountain to the ruins of the tombs of the Merinides with Ali Baba [sic] who cost me 2 DH, plus 50 francs for his scabby companion. The Merinides died well. They probably lived well. Anyway, M. le ministère Jamaï lived well. Il habitais la Chambre de la Favourite. Is that an omen? Does it or did it cancel out the omens of fog in Toronto, overlay in London, bilking in Tangiers, and fleecing in Fèz? Well, I wasn’t shorn too badly. Double the price for the cloak. About right for the copper plates. Who knows about the carpet. But he was a master salesman. For Canadian friendship indeed! And I did buy it in a Palace. C+ for my performance—I should have made him show me all the carpets in the Maison before I bought mine. Then while walking back I lost Abdul in the Souks. I was following this pointed brown jellaba and I was distracted by some exquisitely orange oranges and a particularly virulent sore on a donkey’s back and when I lifted my eyes Abdul wasn’t my Abdul and I was lost in the Labyrinth. 400 years later I emerge—the grisled remains of my cloak flapping in oily tatters about my skeletal chins. My feet caked with the mud and shit of generations of Abduls and Fatmas and donkeys and chickens. O saisons! O chateaux! What have I not seen in my centuries of wandering. The Hegira, the Diaspora, le Voyage eternal de M. le professeur House (A-ouse, avec Ash). Oh, how they danced before my peacock throne—the brown boys and the tattooed girls, moist and naked. These were the Sultan’s butterflies—gilded and useless on their eighteenth birthday—they either worked and bred or else their blood irrigated the Sultan’s gardens. But then was I unkinged, and took up the balai-innommable in place of my sapphired sceptre, and swept out the latrines of a wealthy toothpick dealer. And then was I unkinged again… and Abdul took me home. Most Moroccan men have fantastically beautiful hands, like my Abdul and King Hassan (whose exquisitely perfumed hide gets strafed periodically). Abdul studies philosophy at the University—I don’t know if he really loves wisdom, he certainly loves his commissions from the Shops of his “cousins.” Wisdom is that life is a river and all streams converge… You mean, it isn’t?
This evening I was Lord Byron and then Des Esseintes. Do I really want to go to the Roman ruins tomorrow? Lord Byron would. Des Esseintes would be content—if he even got that far—to Stand as I did, in my white coat and silver tie, wrapped in a purple wool cloak, letting the smoke from my gitane rise to mingle with the immemorial currents of wind—that carry the eagle—and mingle with the cooking fires of hovel-hearths down below—being careful not to soil my white shoes on the damp red clay of the garden path. Active and contemplative—on this cleft I build my church.
If you walk outside in this country without having firmly made up your mind, you’re either fleeced or stepped on, or both. Sometimes I’m afraid to look at anyone, lest a glance should be taken as an offer to dispense money. Like the nice M. Chaounni, who graciously consented to let me pay for the lunch he ordered for us. We did have a nice long chat, however, about how the sun and the dirt [sic] in Morocco kill all the little microbes, and how wasn’t it a disgrace that Jacqueline Kennedy—who was great friends with SM le roi Hassan II—married that old Greek who had a monkey gland operation and how sugar is good for your body and beer helps you digest.
Just left the Gardens of Mamounia. Cats are reassuringly the same. A large black tom seems to be the Pacha de la Mamounia. Only he can enter the inner sanctum of the terasse—I opened the door for him twice. What savoir faire. What ontological security. I was also followed by, or I followed, Edward Arnold (or Jean Gabin) and Judy Holliday. A French couple whose savoir faire oozed from their well-manicured fingertips.
New Year’s Eve at Meknès. A chimpanzee dressed in a brocaded diner jacket was the animateur. The haute monde of Meknès and surrounding countryside swarmed in their glittered kaftans and platformed wedgies. I was given a condescending wink by Jack Lemmon in brown makeup when he gave me a good table for a single person. But I wasn’t alone for long because M. Déry and his wife and daughter joined me at my little table because they had been given a table way in the back because they’re Jewish and you have to whisper about that, tu vois. Well, at least I didn’t have to pay for their diner or their drinks. They were as cheap or cheaper than me. Water + a salade + fish. Was it Kosher or Parsimony? On the left was a gorgeous hunk who turned out to be one of the most famous football players in Maroc and his amber coloured concubine swathed and wadded in silver clouds. Judy Holliday and Edward Arnold were
nuzzling, with a white and a red plunked side by side—I with my half of gris—and then, often, they had champagne. I left before the champagne and the football player and several other farts chose Miss Maroc, as the crowning glory of the fête. Jolly old St. Sylvestre. I was rooting for Miss Ouja, or Miss Tourism of Agadir or someplace—a daughter of the desert—who blushed while a hideous scarecrow of a disc jockey asked Bert Parks questions and snapped Hal March jokes, but dirtier. She was a perfumed garden in the midst of a desert of kohled and sparkling hags. Also, Miss Meknès danced her burnished amber belly. And then stripped a fat local dignitary to teach him how to belly dance. His belly was the colour of the fish M. and Mme. Déry were eating. It did not dance—it heaved.
Coming into Marrakesh, I tried to get a taxi. You must stand in the middle of the road and scream. The person next to me on the curb was a pretty slender boy who got picked up by someone else’s taxi very quickly. Beauty finds its own reward. To me appeared Tiresias, a blind elder from the mountains, led by a seeing-eye beggar boy. Tiresias issued imprecations or blessings at me and I greased the celestial pathway to Paradise (his or mine?) with copper. And Tiresias went away.
Some versions of Paradise. Churchill’s Mamounia, or, I found Thomas Mann in the Gardens of Mamounia. Birds of painfully sweet melody—trills, roulades, arpeggios, fugues and plainchant—never ending, never beginning, endless form, as fresh and earnestly happy as the fountain jets splashing over blue and white tiles. But turn the corner past the oranges and date palms and bougainvillea, down the cactus pathway, and there before you lies the beached elite of the High World. Bloated, white, and creased French millionaires, heaving on their white slatted platforms—their consorts with hair bleached to a frizzle, styled like Zsa Zsa Gabor, gold lamé wedgies and bathing suits moulded around giant bazongas the size of cous-cous covers… whisper-thin high-chic damozelles in sunglasses a third the size of their faces, basking in the sun and the gaze of their elegant little sugar aunties. Pampered little
frog-children torturing the majestic cats of the jungle.
At night, the furs and the jewels come out. And de Velasco glitters—a super smart shop heaped with the treasures of Ali Baba’s cave—elephant tusks, narwhal’s teeth, and caribous’ antlers chased in silver—opalescent glass, obelesques of pure silver, Chinese tapestries, Persian paintings, embroidered velvet, gold, onyx, lapis lazuli.
But this was just a small part of Axel’s treasure. The rest lay hidden beneath the mouldering foundations of the Magic Mountain. The key—the entrée—the Open Sesame (if you become as a mustard seed) is contained in the indecipherable legend engraved on the back of the golden medallion which was broken into 13 pieces, each piece hidden in a different part of the world. And a sequined cracker-jack prize goes to the Bozo who finds it. But the whole box is bought only by all 13 pieces. Sometime after the deluge.
Rock Bottom in Casa
Innocently and openly—Oh, there’s that bland and friendly American—or is he Canadian?— schoolteacher who likes to look at clouds and pretty buildings, making a little promenade at the end of the last leg in his Moroccan Winter. Sunny Casa. Wouldn’t it be nice to see some theatre. If I walk over to the theatre and buy a ticket for the afternoon Show at the Festival de théàtre amateur… How pleasant! How instructive. Then wham—a grungy creep grabbed my arm and raincoat, started pulling me across the parc. Neither anger nor supplication worked. He wouldn’t let go. A ring of greased and grizzled old men assembled, looking impassive—a repeat of the Genovese murder?—deaf to my by now shaky pleas for help. HEADLINE: Unknown foreigner found slain under several date palms in the centre of Beautiful Casablanca. No means of identification. – I finally broke away and ran.
Then, blow upon blow—oh, Petty Job from Chicago—the airlines lost my reservations. The camel’s crotch behind the counter in fez, who told me my return flight was confirmed, had lied or something. Death à Casa. Not even a Tadzio in sight to paint an ever so slight, wistful smile on my death mask. HEADLINE: Unknown foreigner, possibly tourist, plummets to death from 7th floor of El Mansour, clad only in three gandouras and a white jellaba. The chambermaid is quoted as having said: I hardly knew him, he never gave me a tip. The story behind the headline, which no one will ever know: he’s somewhere in the cross currents of life that brought an odd little boy from Chicago, thru many detours, to the northwest coast of Africa. O les grandeurs et les misères de ces pauvres garçons, smashed dreams of freedom and pleasure, the rock of Sysiphus rolls back—Stop Ixion!—back down to the bottom. My god, let someone else push it up,
I’m tired. Where is my mommy? Can’t somebody help me? (Those old men in the park wouldn’t.)
But people don’t die of these things. Least of all people of my rank and quality. Awash in tears in my over-priced hotel bed, I was called to the telephone. Mlle. Doe-Eyes, at Air France, had just had a cancellation, and I could get to Paris after all.
Mlle. Doe-Eyes became my Consorte, la Favourite du Palais. The morning after our wedding night, I arose from our perfumed and silken chamber, as she slept sweetly on, and made my way softly through the cool tiled corridors, to the Reception Courtyard Yard. I assumed my place on my throne of iron and blood red damask, and squinted out into the harsh winter Sunlight of the Courtyard. Then they were in chains—the Owner of the Minzah, the Guides who dragged me into rug stores for their commissions, the shopkeepers who cheated me, the taxi driver who smashed me up in Fes, the Fezi R. R. man who screamed at me, the shoe-shine boys who hiss and clack their brushes, the madman in the Parc—all there, their grey and naked bodies shivering with cold, shaking under the weight of the chains. With a wave of my exquisitely manicured hand I send them all into the Machine—their blood and pus and bones will fertilize my
gardens, for the generations my Doe-Eyes will give me. My sons, in these cool gardens, will listen to a thousand quires of sweet birds.
Tetouan, Ksar el Kabir, Ifrane, Azrou, Beni Mellal, Ouarzazate, Zagora, ‘M’hamid, Agadir, Tiznit, Bou Izakarn, Goulimme—Timbuktu. My friends, my demons—this is the long nuit blanche.
Shall I eat or fast ce soir? Shall I try to pamper this none too grand and none too useful body. There is Mökki the Finnish sauna bath, and El Riad “Mister Beef chez lui” and the Douira “cadre typique” (j’en ai marre de ces maudites cadres typiques)—or a French restaurant across the road, with the madman in the Parc no doubt lurking behind the clacking and hissing shoe-shine boys. I shall probably have a light repast in the Picnic. If somewhere little birds fly then why oh why can’t I? Would it have been better to go to Gibraltar with Neville Fleming, or to feed my dreams, stuff an already full head with visions fugitives. Do I dare to eat a peach?
Everything that happens to you, is like you. Tout que s’arrive à vous, ça reste toujours semblabe à vous. O hypocrite miroir—mon frère—qui a voyagé avec moi par tous les chemins—je t’ai vu à Londres, à Meknes, à Casa, toujours la même. Ça va mieux? Que sais-je? Bismallah. Inch Allah.