I went to the barbers the other week. This is a more complicated procedure than you might think. It is a barbers, not a hairdressers. You don’t fix appointments; you just turn up and one of the three barbers will see you. There is a problem because I have realised that I want my hair cut by only one of the three barbers but the culture is that you just take the next one available. This is sacrosanct; you cannot say no, I’ll wait till Dinos or whatever he is called is free..Such a request would make me ridiculous in the eyes of the clientele. So on a rainy Tuesday night I stood on the other side of the street peering surreptitiously through my barber’s window trying to work out when to be next in line for my favourite barber. The calculation proved beyond me, so I got the bus home. I came back again the next morbing at 9.15. The barbers is open from 9-6. My guess was that the hour from 9-10, less frequented by punters, would be just one barber. I know my barber lives in Fulham. I knew the other two barbers lived in Bromley. Bromley is further away. They would prefer to start late and they were both married. My favourite barber was not married. He would be the one to do the first hour alone. My calculations seemed to prove correct. At 9.15 he was cutting the hair of an elderly man. There was no-one else on the floor. It was a risk because the door to the backroom was slightly open. It could be that one of the other barbers would stride out the moment I set foot in the cutting floor and envelope me in the barber’s sheet. But my calculations proved correct. When I was leaving the barbers with my new and satisfactory haircut one of the Bromley barbers was coming in. Hiya, I chirped jovially. I think I’ve cracked the system.
The other day I sent an umbrella to Hong Kong.. There is an umbrella repair man there who can fix it.. I wrapped it with a brown paperbag they had put my bread in at the cafe where I buy bread, but it wasn’t quite big enough so I had to use some shiny brown sellotape at the ends. My package looked like a stubby cardboard baguette. I was worried they might not accept it at the post office because it wasn’t properly wrapped, but they happily took my £12. That evening on the News I heard that packages abroad were being greatly delayed because of what they called a cyber-issue. To illustrate the news story they had some footage of a package in a tub. It was my umbrella pakage sitting there on the BBC Ten o’clock News, sitting forlornly though unmistakably in the square bucket in a post office which must have been my local post office. It was clearly my package with its brown paper and shiny brown tips. I should be pleased that it has undergone the transformation from inadequate package to archetypal package, but it still won’t be getting to its destination any time soon.
When I am choosing a cafe to have my black coffee in, I peer in at the window to see whether there are proper chairs or perching chairs. You know the perching chairs; they are tall chairs where your legs cannot reach the ground, they ressemble the stools that many so-called stand-up comedians or crooners sat on in the 1970s. They are the kind of seat you sit on if you have an island in your kitchen at home. They are now all the rage in trendy cafes too. Personally, I do not like the perching chair. I want stability in a chair and a proper back to rest my back against. They seem to be flattering to the customer by implying that he or she is not really settled there; they are on the go; too important to be in this single place really because they are sought after by many. It is an extension of the desire to have a coffee to go, to walk around with it thrust out in front of you like some contemporary domestic weapon, the desire to be somewhere else than you are, probably because where you are you are not getting enough adualtion.
Doctor Zhivago is a a mixed novel. Curiously amateurish at times (the frightened attempts to avoid any narration of dramatic events and the use of overhearing as a device like some 18th century picaresque novel) and engaging at others. It is Paternak’s only novel and shows. There is one deeply affecting moment when one of the two main characters, Lara, Zhivago’s major love interest in the text, is erased from the story. On page 447 of the novel in the translation we read:
“One day Larissa Fyodorovna left the house and did not come back again. Evidently she was arrested in the street in those days and died or vanished no one knew where, forgotten under some nameless number on subsequently lost lists in one of the countless general or women’s concentration camps in the north.”
It is as if at the end of the novel, after 447 pages of scrupulous attention to the character, the novelist loses interest. The character is permitted to disappear into the shadows of history.
These are always intriguing and mysterious moments in a novel where the character is left to his or her own devices and consequently ceases to be. The one other example of this that comes to mind is Alfred Doeblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Here, on page 731, after painstaking depiction of his trials and tribulations, Doeblin writes:
“Dem Biberkopf wird gleich nach diesem Prozess eine Stelle als Hilfsportier in einer mittleren Fabrik angeboten. Weiter ist hier von seinem Leben nichst zu berichten.”
(“Soon after this trial Biberkopf is offered a job as a porter in a middle-sized company. He accepts the job. No more about his life will be reported here.”)
Apparently, randomly, the storyteller just decides to stop the story and Biberkopf disappears from the pages of the novel, a little like Lara in the Pasternak. It reads as desolately bleak. These people, whom we have followed and lived with, cease to be. They are maybe living their life somewhere, suffering further in their particular cases, but we will know nothing more about them. It is terribly sad. The novel can no longer accomodate them.