Better Halves (Dante, and me)
Dante watched Giotto paint his ‘Last Supper’ in Padua. The experience taught him to think in circles and circles within circles. The resultant dizziness is reflected in the whirlpool of his master work. But he did not take Giotto seriously as a man. The painter’s flat face (‘as though perpetually pressed against a windowpane’) and fertility amused him. ‘Abrogio Bondone Giotto dabbed by day and begot by night - beautiful paintings, ugly children.’
Dante moved into the house of Malaspina in Lungiana where the Count ‘tolerated him for his wit and humility’. Here he met the second great love of his life, Gentucca of Lucca. Every time she entered the room, he heard a thunderclap. Gentucca, already spoken for, kept her distance. She never talked to him directly. The thunder was not followed by lightning.
Dante documented in ‘Hell’ bad experiences he had in society. But he put Gentucca in ‘Purgatory’, a pleasant enough place. She inhabits an upper circle for shy souls who did not answer back. On passing he remarks to Virgil that Gentucca’s presence made it seem ‘a kinder place’. He praises her for being ‘intelligent in love’. ‘Speak to me’, he says, a gentle joke. And passes on, unanswered as usual.
Ah! poor Dante made a poetic fetich of salutations and their silent responses. In ‘Vita Nuova’ his first sonnet was exultantly dedicated to a surprise little coucou from Beatrice. Several of the other sonnets are songs of dejection at being cut dead. In a way, ‘The Divine Comedy’ is one big hallo to a blond in a crimson and white dress who remains dumb. The last sonnet in ‘La Vita’ is an admission (confirmed in his prose commentary) that his silent ideal had been superceded in his earthly affections by a compassionate mourner at her wake, his future wife.
Gemma is no mystery. She was the practical alternative to Beatrice, the belle menzognes, who is only really at home in a poem. Gemma was neither a fiction nor a beauty (friend Ubaldo in his gentlemanly way said as much). More the nurse mother, laying on the hands to smooth over the cracks. And she had no place in his poetry. But when sadness overcame him she was there to say, ‘There, there, Dante’. And made his bed and dinner.
Dante did not settle back home until he started on ‘Purgatory’. His interest in married women was now just poetical. Needless to say, wife Gemma isn’t mentioned in the ‘The Divine Comedy’. Beatrice, meanwhile, dominated ‘Paradise’. A muse is for eternity, a wife for life.
Kierkegaard on the way to town was passed by two oxen harnessed together, cantering along past him, the one jogging gaily, swinging his tail, the other with her head down putting in the hard work. Most ‘happy marriages’ are like that, he thought.
Mine (adapted from M.memoire (2014))
One sunny winter’s day sitting on the steps of the Palladian church at Ayot St Lawrence, M proposed to me. We had been visiting GB Shaw’s house, which was colonised by men in suits talking Russian. ‘It’s the perfect place for Soviet spies to meet’. I had a moderate salary, and she was living on student grants. ‘If we got married, as your dependant, the tax would mean I needn’t get a job.’
When I told my mother, she was relieved. I was twenty-eight, and apparently without a girl-friend. My mother hated weddings, and said that as long as we were married in a Catholic church she wouldn’t come. M agreed. Any church wedding would be better than none for her Scottish Presbyterian family. But there were objections. Spinster Aunty Peggy (‘The Mean Aunt’), wrote a letter warning her against Irish Papists. But Uncle Willie went along with the Catholic wedding for Ecumenical reasons, and the rest followed. Even M’s mother, Butterball, bowed to her big brother, the doctor.
Father O’Dwyer of Our Lady’s Lisson Grove was known to go on holiday with Cardinal Heenan. He asked to see M. ‘It is necessary to do some indoctrination’. After an hour alone with her, he told me, ‘There is no chance of a conversion. But she will be good for you’. However, he needed to talk to us together. The conversation was mainly about her thesis on Edmund Kean’s son Charles, the Cecil B de Mille of Victorian theatre. Before we left, he remarked, ‘I have one bit of advice. In this life you can’t do everything by yourself’.
M’s family came to the wedding in force. Mine did not turn up, as agreed, except brother Edmund who has always been my keeper. The Best Man was Geoffrey Squires, a Protestant. Zen artist friend John Parson of the Fabulous Poodles battered the wedding rings out of silver into curled up serpents. Uncle Willie, a Church elder, presented himself at the altar rails for Communion. Father O’Dwyer, hesitated but handed him the host rather than put it on the tongue. Afterwards we all went to a Chinese restaurant on the canal by London Zoo. Everybody ordered duck. As the family dug in, M had a fit of silent laughter. Outside on the water real live ducks were swimming, at table level.
Butterball and Aunty Peggy stayed on in a guesthouse near our apartment. Every morning at nine o’clock they arrived at our door in their Sunday best, expecting to be entertained. London in a July heat wave made them fractious. We took them up to Hampstead Health for cream cakes in Kenwood, ices in Camden Lock, lemonade on a boat-trip on the Thames. When they began to squabble with one another, M, as near to tears as I ever saw her, whispered to me, brokenly, ‘I think getting married was a great mistake’.
Four decades later, making our wills, the notary asked us did we have a ‘marriage book’. We were perplexed. ‘As it’s an obligatory in France’, she said, ‘the simplest thing is to get married again’. But a way was found to avoid it. Then she enquired how we would like to be buried. M opted for cremation. I chose enterré, in the ground.
It was a marriage with a difference.