The mayor was more than satisfied by how the day had gone and enjoyed telling his wife all about it over their aperitifs. The evening before she had the pleasure of pointing out that hospital administrators, even those with ambitious and charismatic husbands, do not take mornings off for photo opportunities with visiting dignitaries. The mayor was not a calculating man yet he was a man who calculated. Well, he had thought with a mental shrug, such a wife, politically astute within her feminist limits, was an asset, particularly to a conservative male who delighted in shooting small game.
Things really had come off well at the train station, considering the steady rain. June’s weather can be so changeable. A crowd of perhaps two thousand showed up. Being in the main literary enthusiasts and university types, they were not exactly raucous, but they did cheer when he presented the framed certificate and the oversized, gold-plated key. Especially gratifying was the presence of so much media, with their cameras and lights; there had even been a helicopter. Krantz’s doing probably. The coverage stamped the event as of national—even international—significance. It was just the sort of off-beat story that could be used to close a newscast on a pleasantly insignificant note anywhere on the planet.
The great novelist had declined to speak at length but he was gracious in accepting his honorary citizenship and the key and at least produced an audible thank-you. Leuterre could be proud; it was proud. His city looked good; he looked good. Krantz had been right to advise him to seize the opportunity, peculiar though the whole business undoubtedly was.
Krantz had come to his office in a state of exhilaration just the week before, clasping two of the national dailies to his narrow chest. “Yesterday three members of the National Academy of Arts and Letters proposed Richard Kord for election,” he declared.
“So what?” said the Mayor, who had never known what to make of Kord’s work and its queer relation to his city, though he had been apprised of Kord’s contributions to tourism.
Krantz remained standing as he explained the matter in his annoyingly clever and condescending manner. A good thing he lacked even a drop of the Mayor’s charisma; he’d make a formidable rival.
“There’s a provision in the by-laws of the Academy excluding non-citizens.”
“Quite proper. And so what?”
Krantz broke into a grin and held out one palm like a smug teacher of geometry. “And so we make him a citizen. We get the Council to offer Kord honorary citizenship in Leuterre.”
“Would the Academy buy that?”
“Who cares? It’s good for us.”
The Mayor considered. “And what if Kord declines our offer? We’d look pretty foolish, wouldn’t we? And don’t forget that a lot of voters aren’t exactly big fans of Mr. Kord.”
“First, there’s no need to make the offer public unless he accepts. Second, I think he will accept.”
“He’s been invited to visit before, hasn’t he?”
“Oh, plenty of times. But only by literary organizations and booksellers. Not by us. I really think he’ll come.”
“How about the University? Haven’t they been after him for years?”
“I’m not saying it’s guaranteed, just that you should trust me on this. It’s his chance to get into the Academy, to be the first foreigner to do so. It raises his profile and his publishers will love it. Besides, we do owe him a lot. If he didn’t exactly put us on the map, at least he’s responsible for a lot of people coming here. Your constituents do a tidy business in literary tours. The connection’s been a clear benefit. This is a win-win, as they say over there.”
“Not everybody’s going to think so. Not everyone thinks we owe Kord anything. In fact, some think just the contrary. And a lot of them are my supporters.”
“Philistines,” Krantz snapped dismissively.
When she was sixteen Leda Lirette read her first book by Richard Kord and decided that she would someday write a doctoral dissertation about him. Given her nature, talents, and the fact that she lived in Leuterre, it was not remarkable that, even at such an early age, she should be absorbed by Kord’s books or that, her good looks notwithstanding, she considered herself fated to become an academic. What was surprising was what she wanted to write about.
At twenty-three Leda knew what all the critics had said of Kord’s work. There was praise for the human scope of the novels, the range of characters, the inventiveness of his plots, the breadth of his historical imagination, for Kord had a firm grasp on Leuterre’s long history from its origin as a Roman garrison to its present post-industrial sprawl. She had read theoretical critiques of the experiments with narrative method in his short stories and novellas, elucidations of the symbolism that made his work transcend the local, whole monographs on the dead authors who had allegedly influenced him, his use of liturgical structures, speculations on his religious and political views, articles purporting to explicate the deeper meanings of this or that passage in his work. Leda was as impressed by all this as anybody else, as, for instance, her thesis advisor, Professor Van Orden. Professor Van Orden, however, was dubious about Leda’s proposed line of research and pressed on her the need for “a practical focus” and the obligation to make an “original contribution to scholarship, no matter how modest”—in other words, she wanted Leda to aim low. She suggested Kord’s use of the first-person plural and how it connected him to various nineteenth-century writers or perhaps the influence of Herman Melville, a subject which, in her view, had hardly been exhausted. But what Leda craved was to pluck out the heart of what was most mysterious about Kord’s work, its how—how did he know so much about the city—and, still more, its why—why did he write about Leuterre at all, Leuterre and nowhere else.
Kord’s latest book, Leuterre by Night, was a collection of intricately related stories, each set between dusk and dawn in one of the city’s neighborhoods. The characters were of every age and social class, from a toddler to a senile widow, from a homeless immigrant to a corrupt bank official. There was violence and love, sacrifice and loneliness. Not all the neighborhoods were familiar to Leda, but the ones she did know were described, as always, with correct street names, recognizable landmarks and, above all, those little details that thrilled the locals, such as the small butcher shop that sold a particular kind of liver sausage or the rules of a complicated game involving two tennis balls and a garage door only played by children in a four-block section of the Rheinach. Kord was precise about school uniforms and restaurant menus, the shape of church steeples, forgotten local saints whose feast days were kept by a handful of old women. In one story he even mentioned a little stand of beech trees frequented by boys and girls who knew there are no better trees for climbing than beeches. Leda had played there herself. Everything was correct, as if Kord had been writing in plein air, so to speak, as if he’d devoted his life to soaking up the local color and the life of a medium-sized city which never seemed to Leda as rich as it did in Kord’s books. Leda had devoured the stories in a single sitting.
Leda Lirette had been one of those precocious children with whom the public schools find it difficult to cope, except that her brilliance was not in mathematics, chess, or music—those lofty athletics of pure reason in which success requires a miraculous sort of brain and no experience of the world. Leda did rather poorly in math, in fact, but she was a brilliant reader, extracting so much meaning from what she was assigned in school that each new teacher, grading the girl’s first essay of the term, accused her of plagiarism. As a result, Leda developed a horror of injustice in general and false accusations in particular. She was physically incapable of sitting through a frame-up movie.
By fifteen she had taken her education into her own hands, working her way through all the classics neglected by the official curriculum, to the puzzlement and sometimes the consternation of her parents, who would wonder why her bath lasted an hour, only to find the girl, neck-deep in tepid water, lost in Thucydides or Goethe. It was for her sixteenth birthday that an aunt gave her Kord’s The Urban World and she was hooked. Up till then there had been for her a sharp and even reassuring separation between literature and actuality, what she read and where she lived. Reading Kord, she was astounded by the disregarded world around her and enthralled by its transformation into words. It was as though Richard Kord had thrown magic dust over Leuterre, metamorphosing the banal and ordinary city into a place as profound and full of wonder as St. Petersburg or Mississippi. For Leda, reading Kord’s work was delightfully dissonant because it mixed the commonplace with the exotic and infused the everyday with the mythic.
Now he was here. He would be giving a public reading and she was determined to meet him. Professor Van Orden might not be interested in her ambition, might scoff at the idea of a mere child solving the well-guarded mystery, but Leda had a hypothesis.
The Mayor was still in a good humor. Settled in his easy chair he considered his guests and thought about the symmetry of the two couples, a brace of congruencies all dressed up. The University Rector and his wife had been his guests for dinner and he would be theirs at the University. The Rector’s wife was a distinguished professor, his ran a hospital—four accomplished people who were no threat to one another. His wife looked quite feminine tonight; he was happy she had chosen to wear the pearls his mother had given her. Professor Van Orden and her husband the Rector looked reassuringly just like what they were. He checked his watch.
“It’s very good of you to come,” the Rector was saying. “We seldom get to see you at university events.”
“Thanks for that ‘get to,’ Rector. But really this is a civic event. After all, Kord’s our city’s unofficial laureate. May I get you another sherry?”
The Mayor’s wife stood up and scowled a little. “That’s exactly what’s wrong,” she complained. “Kord is our laureate and nobody has any idea why. Besides, he’s not exactly flattering about us, is he?”
Professor Van Orden, who did not use her husband’s name and was keen that everybody know she had been a professor before she married, spoke as she might at a seminar.
“Quite true, Madam Mayor. Kord has singled us out and, given his talent, it’s an honor. To be sure, it’s an unasked-for one but did Paris ask for Hugo or Prague for Kafka? I’d say he’s given us our due. No more and no less.”
“Excuse me, it just makes no sense and I don’t care for mystification. What does he say when people ask him about it? They must ask him all the time.”
“Ask him what?” said the Mayor, turning his head from one woman to the other.
“Why he writes exclusively and incessantly about Leuterre when he doesn’t even live in this country, let alone this city.”
“Oh,” said Professor Van Orden, “on that point he’s said a variety of things.”
The Rector laughed. “Kord once said, ‘It’s a wonderful town.’ Thought I might use that tonight.”
“So it is,” the Mayor chimed in congenially. “Wonderful.”
“He’s said other things too,” added Professor Van Orden. “I’ve read all the published interviews. He said ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Leuterre is reality.’ He said, ‘I prefer not to say.’”
“Prefer not to say?”
“Yes. And he told one interviewer, ‘Leuterre’s a vast subject. I haven’t come near exhausting it yet.’”
“Some joke,” said the Mayor’s wife.
“My favorite answer is the simplest.”
“‘Leuterre is what I write.’” The professor raised a finger. “Notice, he doesn’t say it’s what I write about.”
“As if he made us,” said the Rector, amused.
“Well, he certainly doesn’t flatter us.”
“No, my dear. We’re supposed to flatter him.”
“Precisely. What for? It’s like having to thank a stranger for sending you a present that’s too big, too ugly, and too confusing.”
“Complex,” corrected the professor softly.
“And why’s he here now?”
“You know why, my dear.”
“Just to get into the Academy? I don’t believe it. Kord’s world-famous while our Academy’s an antique, a club for sycophants and back-stabbers. Why it’s just a relic of cultural nationalism as dated as—as celluloid collars.”
“Or telegrams,” added the Rector helpfully.
“My wife’s not a fan of Kord,” explained the Mayor superfluously. “She thinks he’s some sort of voyeur. Apparently he wasn’t very kind about her hospital in one of his novels.”
“Intensive Care,” said Professor Van Orden, who answered questions even if nobody asked them.
“Didn’t read it myself,” said the Mayor complacently.
“It’s actually very moving,” said the Rector, who had liked the book; moreover, he had the feeling that he hadn’t been holding up his end of the conversation.
The Mayor checked his watch again. “We really ought to be on our way. So, Rector, how do we do it? What’s the drill?”
“I thought you might want to make a few opening remarks. As you say it is a civic event. Then I introduce Lucille and she introduces Kord. He reads, takes a few questions—”
“Unless he prefers not to,” scoffed the Mayor’s wife.
“Yes, if he chooses he takes questions. And then there’s the reception. We’re using Stiegler Ballroom. Light refreshments. Pleasant chatter. Then we all go home.”
The Mayor’s wife was determined not to let go of her displeasure. “You don’t think that’s a little excessive, a bit, well, heraldic? He introduces you, you introduce your wife, she introduces Kord?”
“Well,” mumbled the embarrassed Rector.
“She’s got a point,” the Mayor chimed in. He had, out of prudence, been looking for a chance to agree with his wife about something or other. “Just keep it short, Rector, and I’ll do likewise.” He turned to Professor Van Orden. “Not you, Madam. Of course. You’re our Kord expert, after all. We’ll all be listening closely to you. Maybe taking notes.”
The reading was open to everyone at the University, but Leda begged Professor Van Orden to arrange for her to get into the reception.
“You’re quite the little terrier, Leda. Well, it is an opportunity not to be missed, I agree.”
“Yes, Professor. Most definitely not to be missed.”
“I’ll see about it. After all, if you’re going to make him your special subject you’ve a better right to be there than, say, Rhadamanthus.”
They giggled like a pair of adolescents. Rhadamanthus was Professor Hadiquet, an unpopular medievalist who, even if he was not the misogynist he was rumored to be, always wore bow ties. Except to his face, nobody used his real name.
Leda arrived at the auditorium early. She wanted to claim a seat in the fourth row, close enough to the stage but not so near as to have to crane her neck. Her copy of Leuterre by Night was in her large handbag along with a legal pad, three ballpoints, and a note in an unsealed envelope. Professor Van Orden had called to tell her that not only could Leda attend the reception but that she would personally accompany her to the ballroom and introduce her to Richard Kord. She was amused by Leda’s childish squeal of delight. “In my day it was John Lennon and Mick Jagger who made us wet our pants; not Böll or even Yevtushenko,” she mused nostalgically but said nothing to embarrass either Leda or herself.
Leda had a long wait but in the fourth row. The hall eventually filled to the rafters and not only with university people. At last the principals took the stage, marching out, she thought, not unlike a firing squad escorting a condemned prisoner. She was surprised that Kord was dressed so informally, in a sport jacket, black jeans, an open-necked shirt. He looked younger than fifty-seven, younger even than he did in the grainy portrait on the dust jackets of his last three books. This depicted him in a loose greatcoat seated on a park bench staring at the ground like a defeated infantryman. There were blurs in the background of two pedestrians and three cars. It was a poignant image, in Leda’s opinion, suggesting individuality to the point of isolation. She examined him as he took his seat. Kord was lean and tan, the way some Americans were. With a thrill of interest and disgust she wondered if he could be one of those foreign authors who made it a point to seduce young women wherever they went.
The Mayor spoke pompously but briefly, saying absolutely nothing but in just the right key. The Rector was hieratic, as if announcing the Nobel prize or the death of a monarch, but he too kept it brisk. Professor Van Orden, however, approached the podium with a sheaf of papers, laid them on the lectern, and took out her reading glasses before pausing to look over the crowd. It was exactly what she did in class.
“Your Honor, Rector, ladies and gentlemen . . . I was about to refer to Richard Kord in the usual fashion as our honored guest but it seems to me a question whether he is our guest or we are his.”
It was a promising opening, Leda thought, but unfortunately the professor then turned to her notes and the next sentence—a real python even by Van Orden standards—lost the crowd irretrievably.
“The modern novel and the modern city have always been closely conjoined, mingled even in the social and economic substructure that brought both into being, but never as intimately as Leuterre and the works of Richard Kord, so much so that he has made us see in how many respects a novel is a city; that is, a concatenation of the accidental and the deliberate, of chance and consequence, clusters of human beings, high and low, in an incoherence made intelligible and orderly by plots, by the choice of hero or heroine, the very choice all of us make when we open our eyes each morning.”
The professor persisted in this vein, making an analogy between traffic patterns, street grids, and narrative structure, dropping big names like Balzac and Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Proust, and generally wearing her learning as heavily as possible. Kord, she went so far as to say, had done for their Leuterre what Homer had for Ilium—or Dante for Hades. Through it all Leda kept her gaze fixed on the author himself. He sat very still, looking not only as if all this had nothing to do with him but as if he’d gone stone deaf. The speech contrived to be fulsome and technical without really coming to any point. At length it petered out and the professor called on Kord to read a story from his latest book, which he dutifully stood up and did. He read well enough but without any effort to dramatize, to draw his listeners in. The audience listened, if not reverentially, at least quietly. Leda had been curious about which story he would select. He chose the one about the unemployed man who, just to get a little warmth, wanders into a university lecture on a February morning and ends up making a stunning speech about economics. The story was set in the very auditorium in which it was now being read. At first Leda thought this was just a bit of cleverness but then she saw a deeper significance in it; for Leda Lirette never failed to get the literary point of anything. It came to her in the form of a simple sentence of just four words: There are two auditoriums.
Professor Van Orden would have done better to have stopped after that first sentence of hers.
Stiegler Ballroom was a linoleum-floored cavern that, so far as Leda knew, had never witnessed anything as festive as a ball. It was now divided by red curtains in order to create a more intimate space; that is, one that would be crowded. Serving tables had been set up and covered with starched white linen cloths. Students in short jackets and black trousers stood at attention behind them as if guarding Buckingham Palace and not stuffed mushrooms, mini-sausages, tea, coffee, and the second-rate wines favored by university caterers. As receptions are planned to last for only an hour or so there were no chairs for sitting and chatting. The affair was the usual see-and-be-seen, look-over-your-interlocutor’s-shoulder, balance-the-food-and-drink sort of thing. Like ants around dropped candy, people clustered about the most important personages, the Mayor, the Rector—above all, Richard Kord.
Professor Van Orden, true to her promise, had taken Leda in tow and made straight for the novelist; but, in their passage across the ballroom, she was accosted three times by colleagues who wanted either to praise or take her to task for her remarks. The annoyingly insistent Professor Moreau, who apparently wanted to give a lecture of his own, would not let her go. “An actual city, of course, is not a novel,” he said. “You know this perfectly well. Naturally. Still, when sitting down to read—or, I venture to say, to write—one can’t foresee all the contingencies to come, the accidents which must nevertheless not appear to be accidents . . .”
Leda stood impatiently at her professor’s side, glaring at Moreau who wouldn’t stop: “Perhaps, as you imply, the god of the city is indeed a novelist, but, if so, he’s a god who can only play at pre-destination and—you know—would be perfectly lost without the collaboration of his characters who . . .”
Leda opened her bag and took out the envelope. She felt as she did when, as a child, she was first taken to see Santa Claus, cajoled into sitting on an alien lap to disclose her heart’s desire. Her hands were damp.
Finally Professor Van Orden cut Moreau off. “Maybe a city’s just a novel without a plot. Please excuse me, but I’ve promised Ms. Lirette . . .”
Richard Kord graciously thanked Professor Van Orden for her introduction, flattered her by alluding to one of her publications, then fell silent, looking curiously at Leda, who blushed.
“This is my most brilliant student, Leda Lirette, and she intends to write her doctoral thesis on you, Mr. Kord.”
Kord’s eyebrows went up and he gave a goofy little laugh, as if the notion of a doctoral dissertation devoted to him was, of all conceivable notions, the most absurd.
Leda had never met a famous author before, especially not one she had been reading most of her conscious life. To her, Kord’s work meant so much and it partook so much of the eternal that it was impossible to imagine it being composed by this particular body sitting down in some physical place on a day that had an actual date. Up close Kord’s face looked nice, thoughtful, less open or blank than those of younger Americans she’d met. She mumbled a few words and pressed her envelope into his extended hand.
Kord opened the envelope at once and read her note. Leda took one of the ballpoints from her bag and handed it to Kord. He gave another little laugh, more embarrassed than amused. He took the pen, raised his knee, rested her note on it, and scrawled something.
“What’s this?” said Professor Van Orden jovially. “An autograph or an assignation?”
Leda, having succeeded so far, was emboldened to say, “I haven’t had my autograph yet. If you would, Mr. Kord?” And she reached again into her bag, pulling out her copy of Leuterre by Night. Kord took it and wrote a dedication on the flyleaf, then, with a mock click of his heels, bowed and returned first the pen, then the book, and finally her note.
Leda placed all three smartly in her bag and said, “Your most devoted reader in all Leuterre.” Then the audience was over. Now she couldn’t wait to get away from the professor who was bound to ask questions. It was the Mayor’s wife who came unexpectedly to her rescue.
“Splendid job, Professor,” she said, wine in hand, and, manifestly, some quantity inside, “not that I had any idea what you were talking about.”
Leda excused herself hurriedly and headed for the least lit corner of the hall. She opened the book first.
To Leda from an Ugly Duckling, Richard Kord.
That, she thought, was clever of him, to be suggestive and not at the same time.
Then she opened her note. Kord had scribbled: Ten tomorrow morning? Lobby of Hotel Kristall. Above it she had written: This isn’t your first visit to Leuterre. Will you meet me tomorrow?
The rain that had let up overnight returned in the morning but Leda’s spirits were anything but sodden. She awoke feeling like a gambler who had played a successful long-shot. And, the payoff was yet to come.
Her seventeenth-century seminar met at ten-thirty. One of her most earnest classmates was to deliver a paper on the disputes between John Donne and Robert Bellarmine and Leda had no hesitation in cutting it to go to the Hotel Kristall.
She dressed with care, tempted by but rejecting a green sundress in favor of her best jeans, a cream silk turtleneck, low-heeled boots, and her new jacket. It was a student’s outfit but stylish and not cheap.
By eight o’clock both her parents had left for work which left her plenty of time to collect her thoughts and get to the hotel. Then the doubts began. Why had he agreed to the meeting so readily? Did he have designs on her after all and was that why he had chosen his hotel? With shame she recalled Professor Van Orden’s tasteless disjunction—“autograph or assignation?” And why, even if she was right, would Kord, who had for decades evaded the very questions she meant to answer, tell a green grad student the truth? Why Leuterre, she would have to ask. What was to prevent him dismissing her with . . . Why not? or Because. After the reading he had declined to take questions, pleading tiredness. He made a joke of it: “I hope you will excuse me. Anyway, my experience is that the natural scientists are right. All questions have answers, but most of the answers are wrong.” But then she reflected that, for all Kord knew, she had actual information, not just an inspired guess. She had countered mystification with mystery and the gambit had worked. It would be tricky to let him persist in this delusion but not impossible, and she could avoid lying outright. She had to say as little as possible and let him do all the talking. Maybe it was just to tell her—to tell somebody—that he had come to Leuterre. It wasn’t entirely improbable. She didn’t believe he’d come because he yearned to be elected to the stuffy Academy. It was like Einstein applying to the plumbers union.
On the tram, watching Leuterre unroll through the droplet-covered window, it was natural to think of how Kord had written of this boulevard, of Frunzi Square, how he had depicted a crowd and the weekday traffic near the lycée, told the history of the cathedral and the scandal behind the monument to Count de Vide. One day in class Professor Moreau, indignant that they knew nothing of the Dreyfus Affair, indicted her generation. He said that to them “nothing’s real until it’s on television.” It was meant mockingly and yet there was a truth in it he didn’t intend, that nothing is fully real until it is imagined because perception is an aggressively creative act. One need not do the imagining oneself but somebody must. That was what Kord had done for her. Before reading him she had felt she lived nowhere. This was the real source of her great, simple idea. No one could have so much feeling for a place without having been there. But the emotional power of a place is owing to what has occurred there, especially what has happened to us. Therefore she deduced not only that Kord must have been in Leuterre before but that something indelible had befallen him. It was simple logic.
The Hotel Kristall is a baroque pile situated on prime real estate. It sits on the Inner Ring, across from both the Opera House and the Rosenheim Gardens. As she walked up the broad pavement to its golden doors Leda’s mind was in high gear. Not too many years before a young woman dressed as she was would probably not have been admitted to the lobby of the Hotel Kristall; at the least she would have been sneered at and frowned upon. Now she simply waited for the doorman to do his job. It fortified her confidence to have this huge specimen dressed like a field marshal hold the door for her and touch his cap. Then she remembered this was exactly what Hannah Adler had thought when entering the Kristall to commit her first adultery in Neither Father Nor Lover. How many scenes had Kord set in the hotel? Always he associated it with sexual entanglement, the decadence of the privileged, the pretensions of the parvenus. In his books nothing really good ever happened in this hotel. Why had he chosen to stay there? Of course, she realized, Kord didn’t choose. He was the guest of Leuterre, after all, and could hardly have been offered anything inferior to a suite at the Kristall.
Inside, Leda found herself in another world, one shut off from the noise and glare of workaday Leuterre. The lobby was a marvel of soft shade, soft air, soft sounds, soft furniture and carpets. Even the carved wood of the reception desk and the display case of antique crystal appeared to be melting. She scanned the place, looking for Kord. She checked her watch and cursed herself for being five minutes early. Impatience might take her down a peg in Kord’s estimation—if, indeed, there was an estimate to be diminished. What should she do if he actually made a pass? It would be awful and yet here she was. She ought to have prepared something graceful to say, something clever, humane, sharp and gentle all at once.
She was staring at the sleekly groomed desk clerks when she felt a touch on her shoulder, tentative and light.
“Good morning,” Kord said sheepishly, ducking his head. “Hope I didn’t startle you.”
He was dressed in blue jeans and a tweed sport jacket and looked even more informal than he had the night before.
“Not at all. No. Good morning.”
Kord seemed ill at ease and struck her as more curious than anxious. He didn’t leer at all; in fact, he seemed almost boyishly shy. What now?
“Have you had any breakfast?”
A splendid question. Leda felt relief, even gratitude.
“The coffee here, like everything else, is the absolute superlative, the very best.”
They went into the café which was almost empty. Kord directed her to a booth at the rear. It was next to a window that looked across the boulevard to the Rosenheim Gardens where Hubert Beifeld had murdered André Fassenet in The Big Deal.
When they were settled Leda said, “Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Kord. It’s a privilege.”
“Is it? Well, it’s quite a privilege for me to be the subject of a doctoral dissertation. Also to meet such a dogged researcher, Mademoiselle. So, you found the police record?”
This jolted Leda. Best to smile and say nothing, she thought, and treat the question as rhetorical. She smiled at Kord slyly, like a journalist guarding a source.
A waiter came and they ordered coffee. Kord asked for a plate of brioche and croissants. Leda was relieved not to get the fish-eye from the waiter. The cliché old enough to be your father zipped through the nebula of thoughts in her busy head. All the sources said that Kord had never married, that he now lived somewhere in New England, and alone. Yet he wrote brilliantly about women. What did the man do about sex? In his books it wasn’t joyous, at least not for long; it almost seemed to her that he punished self-surrender and openness.
She still hadn’t lied to him. “Why don’t you fill in the blanks for me?” she asked invitingly. It was worth a try.
“I suppose I should be surprised nobody found out before. Frankly, it’s a relief. I grew sick of the mysteriousness long ago but it seemed best just to let it ride. Besides, it’s not easy to explain, me and Leuterre.”
“What’s the idiom? I’m all ears?”
“How about your dissertation? If I fill in all the blanks you’ll have to change subjects.”
She smiled and, true to her method, stifled a reply. If the man had brought himself to the point of making a confession, he was more apt to deliver it to someone who isn’t talking herself. She would do her utmost to be a vacuum in order that he should fill it.
“All writers are guilty but life,” he said, leaning his head back against the seat, “isn’t like those detective novels where the guilty have a single premeditated motive. The very first story I wrote, unpublished, was about Leuterre. Before the Night Train I called it and it was terrible. I tried to figure out why. There were plenty of reasons; there always are. Most of all I made the rookie error of confusing what happened with what’s true. I’d tried to reproduce a memory rather than to imagine an action. A memory’s like a finished object, a doorknob or a baseball—easy enough to put your hand around the outside of it.”
Leda was bewildered and said so. She held up her bag. “May I take notes?”
Kord shook his head. “I’d prefer you didn’t. Not that I want more secrets. If I wanted secrets we wouldn’t be here. It’s just that taking notes is what interviewers and college students always do and then I can’t just talk to them; I begin to arrange things for their notebooks.”
“All right,” she said quickly. “Tell me whatever you want, in any order you like.”
“And you’ll just listen? Good. I once read about this old Jewish man. He’d made it to the States after the war and started a business. The business took off and he made a fortune. He married and had kids and then grandkids. He bought a big estate on Long Island and traveled everywhere first class. The thing was he always kept this little suitcase under his bed. Understand? When I was young I was always looking to escape, not because I was insecure but because I didn’t feel I belonged where I was. I was supposed to be somewhere else. Maybe it wasn’t belonging where I was that turned me into a writer. At least it made me a conscious being. My family moved from the city to the suburbs when I was twelve. Up till then I’d been a healthy animal—all playgrounds and the guys and pop music. But then I became unhappy, a new experience for me, and I didn’t understand it except that I knew it was important and that I wasn’t really eager for it to end. Reading was like that for me in those days too—I mean, I didn’t understand what I read yet I could tell if it was good. Dostoyevsky was good. Flaubert was good. Kleist was good. I wanted to work my way right through the classics section of the library but the truth is I read all those masterpieces the way lonesome people wolf down science fiction and historical romances. It’s quite possible to read good books in a terrible way. Pure escapism. The books made me yearn for a richer life, deeper depths and higher highs. Anything but the bland boredom of my suburban adolescence. I felt like I was holding my breath, a caterpillar doing time, hoping to turn into something that could fly.”
“How did you get to Leuterre?”
“So, the order does matter, eh? Linear narrative? Okay. By the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college I’d saved up enough to bum around Europe and by then my parents weren’t exactly inclined to dissuade me. Found a cheap charter that left the day after my last examination. Got the wash-and-wear shirts, the backpack, the blue blazer and this book by a guy named Frommer, Europe on $5 A Day. The Bible of its time and place. Every American under thirty had a copy of Frommer so we all ran into each other everywhere we ate or slept or gawked. At five bucks a day I calculated I could manage ten weeks. I’ve hardly gone anywhere since, I mean just to travel. I suppose I used up all my wanderlust that summer when I became a ghost. All right. Now, Leuterre. It was just a layover on the way somewhere else, of course, somewhere prettier, more famous. Even Frommer didn’t have much to say about Leuterre. I arrived in the morning and was going to take the night train out. So I walked around. I marched down that boulevard out there, strolled through those gardens over there.”
“Forty years and nothing’s changed on the Inner Ring?”
“A hundred and thirty-five years, actually.”
Nothing is more tedious to the young than their elders’ nostalgia. Leda was uninterested in Kord’s adolescent peregrinations; she wanted to hear about that police report she was supposed to have found.
“So that’s when it happened? When you were here in the Inner Ring?” Still no lies.
“No. I went further out looking for cheap eats, all the way into the Rheinach. I was checking out a greasy spoon when this girl in a miniskirt came up to me. She was pretty and I knew absolutely nothing. She took my hand, mentioned a price, and I went with her. I was lonely. People looked through me. Becoming a little more invisible every day for two weeks had turned me into a ghost—and what seemed worse, a virginal one. The hotel she took me to wasn’t much like this and the transaction didn’t take long. I’d just gone back out in the street when, stunned rather than gratified, this hysterical man with a policeman in tow dashed right up to me, pointed in my face and began shouting. So far as I could make out I’d punched his wife and robbed his store—a jewelry store, I later discovered.”
“Didn’t they search you?”
“Sure. On the spot. Didn’t seem to matter. You see, I had on a blazer and it was blue. That seemed to be the chief point.”
“Did they beat you up, the police?”
“No, but they scared me. Took my passport and my belt and locked me in a cell about the size of, and with much the same smell as, a beer keg. That’s how I described it in that first story. Fancy sentence structure and all. Three hours later a woman came into the station. They told me about it later. Said she was furious and that she hollered that her daughter’s no-good boyfriend was a thief and she had proof. She produced the engagement ring he’d swiped. She even had his blazer, blue like mine, but with pockets crammed with bracelets, necklaces, and brooches. The police fetched the jeweler to identify the loot then they turned me loose. They were kind enough to tell me what had happened but not so gracious as to apologize. They handed over my passport and belt. I figured they’d throw the arrest forms away.”
“You left the next morning, then?” Leda said quickly, telling herself there was no such thing as a lie of omission.
“Bye-bye, Leuterre. Good riddance, I thought. And yet, Mademoiselle, I’ve never really been released. As you know.”
Leda finished off the last of her coffee and bit into a croissant. It was ineffably light and buttery, a croissant from the other side of the moon.
“So because of that afternoon—no, because of a half-hour forty years ago when you lost your virginity and got arrested—you’ve stayed in Leuterre? Mentally, I mean. Emotionally.”
Kord spoke seriously. “Not this Leuterre. My Leuterre.”
“I don’t quite—”
“Oh, it looks just the same. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make it so. Research. It’s all scaffolding, though, to be torn down as soon as the building’s up. I’ve got maps, photo albums, telephone directories, annual reports from the electric and water companies, from any number of companies. I have census figures and subscribe to all the newspapers and half a dozen magazines, including your University’s literary journal which, I regret to say, publishes a phenomenal quantity of execrable poetry. I’ve read all the chief histories and own all the museum catalogues. Then there’s the omniscient Internet, our vast collective memory. Amazing what you can find there. Soon nobody’ll have to remember anything.”
Leda nodded encouragingly.
He pointed at his head. “My Leuterre is a place I made for myself, one where I can imagine I belong. That it’s not the purest act of imagination, I admit; but it’s still sympathy plus invention, still seeing what isn’t visible. It’s something, an occasion, a motive. I can say both Leuterre, c’est moi but also Kord, il n’est pas Leuterre.”
Was he honest? “Is Richard Kord your real name?”
Kord looked taken aback by the question then laughed. “Sorry. I got carried away. I’m not used to speaking so freely and it’s a little intoxicating. Of course Kord’s my real name. Wasn’t it on the report you found? It was my grandfather who followed the American custom of changing names. Americans don’t just re-invent themselves but also their posterity.”
As you have ours, she thought. “He didn’t by any chance come from Leuterre, that grandfather of yours?”
“Not even close. He came from Russia. A fine place to leave, a country with absolutely no talent for happiness. But what novels!”
“And you live all alone?”
“What a question. Don’t we all? Well, I do now, anyway. Or you could say I live in Leuterre, at least when I’m not here.”
Kord made a wry face. “Mademoiselle, the only way I ever found to tell the truth is by lying. And I’ve tried to tell as much of it as I could.”
Shocked by a sudden surmise, Leda sat up straight. “And has all this been a lie? Another Leuterre story?”
Kord picked up a brioche, took a bite, chewed it, swallowed, all the while looking her in the eyes, the way liars don’t. “Is my work a failure of the imagination or a success? Have I invented Leuterre or has this city dreamed me up? Do I belong to it, am I its newest citizen, only because I’m so alienated? Am I still missing that night train?” He leaned back. “Well, Mademoiselle Leda Lirette, why don’t you tell me?”