February 2009


Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix a point in the stars unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understodd to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backward as well as forward, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in medias res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-pre-supposing fact with which our story sets out.

We rubbed ourselves from head to foot with camphorated oil, put kerosene on our hair, filled our pockets with moth-balls, and sprinkled naphthaline through our baggage; and boarded a train so saturated with formalin that our eyes and lungs burned as with quicklime. The Americans from the Standard Oil Office in Salonika strolled down to bid us farewell.

“Too bad,” said Wiley. “So Young too. Do you want the remains shipped home, or shall we have you buried up there?”

These were the ordinary precautions of travellers bound for Seria, the country of typhus …

1916

Paris. Paris. There is something silken and elegant about that word, something carefree, something made for a dance, something brilliant and festive ike champagne. Everything there is beautiful, gay, and a little drunk, and festooned with lace. A petticoat rustles at every step; there’s a ringing in your ears and a flashing in your eyes at the mention of that name. I’m going to Paris. We’ve come to Paris. We’re going to live in Paris. But what I saw my first day resembled neither silk nor lace nor champagne.

Imagine that a man has landed on the moon. He’s expecting to see a  majestic and menacing wasteland, dead mountains, stone chasms, a special sky. And suddenly he notices that he’s looking at the stucco wall of his neighbour’s house, it’s raining and the courtyard stinks.