Was it only a phantom Alexander Wainwright met in that Paris Café?
A tortured spirit rising up from the battlefields of senseless war?
Decide for yourself in this CyberSpace adventure.
Have we met before in some other time or place? Perhaps in CyberSpace?
I’m Alexander Wainwright—a landscape painter by profession. The other night, I was strolling along the Embankment idly thinking about my latest work. In my studio the painting sat on its easel and stared accusingly at me.
Neither subject matter nor technique were the problem. Initially I was searching for a softness or haziness to strike the mood. But that was a quick fix. I needed something far more subtle and fundamental than that. I was trying to capture an elusive—almost indefinable— mood which resisted being pinned down. But what was that mood? And how could I capture something so indescribable? I stopped and stared at Big Ben as if its hands could shape the answer.
At first, I felt slightly dizzy and then came a strange sense [along with a whooshing sound] that I was being lifted upward at great speed.
When I opened my eyes, I was agog! For there, above me, rose the Eiffel Tower. What in God’s name is happening?” I seemed to be lying on my back. I struggled to sit up. Glancing about I knew for certain that I was, indeed, in Paris. How on earth had that happened?
And then, I began to smile. “Ah yes! I must be on another CyberSpace adventure,” I said to no one in particular. Sometimes, I have gone back in time and met some very auspicious personages in the arts and sciences such as Dr. Jung and Dostoevsky. I tried to relax and enjoy whatever lay ahead. Whom would I meet this time?
With these vague thoughts trailing through my mind, I found myself approaching a café—Les Deux Magots, a famous hangout for artists for more than a century. As I came closer, time seemed to shift relentlessly into the past.
Inside it was very crowded and I wondered where I might sit.
Music and laughter rang out. A great party was underway. I edged my way past tables and chairs to find a seat.
A rather taciturn looking man beckoned me. “You may sit here with me,” he said, “provided you will listen to my story.” He motioned in the direction of all the other patrons. A small smile appeared on his lips. “Despite the crowds, it’s very lonely here. Only a very few people seem to hear me. The waiter did bring me café but …” His voice trailed off on a note of despair.
I sat down and held out my hand. “I’m Alexander Wainwright. And you are?”
At first, the name meant nothing to me. “Do you live in Paris?” I asked.
“Yes. I’ve been here ever since the end of the war. Trying to put my life back together again.”
“Afghanistan or Iraq?”
He frowned deeply. “Pardon?”
“Yes. Or did you serve in both countries?”
Jake shook his head in confusion. “Passchendaele.”
I looked about the café. How stupid of me! I thought. I was certainly on a most intriguing CyberSpace journey. Just look at the people in the cafe. I must be in the 1920’s. Now I understood that Jake had fought in the battle at Passchendaele, in the First World War and was now hanging out in cafés.
I began again. “You said, you had a story to tell, Jake. Is it about the war?”
Emotion threatened to overtake him. I simply waited.
Jake twiddled a cigarette nervously between his fingers. He only nodded dumbly and then looked away. He began to speak slowly as if from that great distant place where we bury our darkest memories.
Jake said, “Of course, war was hell—pointless suffering. Young men threw themselves into the fire for no good purpose. I cannot describe the horror of seeing my comrades blown to smithereens on the battlefield.”
What could I possibly say? I could not experience what he had and certainly had no wish to do so. My lifetime has been relatively peaceful.
Suddenly, I was not sure if he were laughing or crying. After a long pause, he leaned across the table and said,
“But that was nothing at all. The real horror came after I returned to Paris. Oh yes, I can see from your face Alexander that you think I may be mad. But it’s all in what you cannot see. You look about and see gay people laughing, telling stories and flirting, drinking and carousing. Life is just a bowl of cherries. What is hidden beneath the surface is the worst.
“On the good days, the horror slips and slides silently beneath the surface. All you can see is thick dark grey soup blotting out even the most hopeful ray of sunshine. On the bad days, when I stay locked up in my room, I see the wretched faces of dead men floating in the trenches. I hope to God that, in another hundred years, we will settle our differences without the killing.”
The waiter was standing by the table. When I ordered café, he slouched off like a man lost in fog. I looked about me. Jake was right. How sad these smiling people were! I shook myself awake. “Good God man!” I found my matches and lit Jake’s cigarette which trembled in his hand. “Does your torment never end?”
“There is such a sense of stillness suffocating my every movement, thought or feeling—as if I were a ghost. I can find no place to start life again.” He gave a gentle cough as if energy and life had forsaken him. “We are the lost generation. We sit in cafés and bars and force life into our broken bodies.” His smile grew fixed and his face grew ashen. “As for me, many would laugh at my injuries. I am no longer a man! Funny how we waste our time, our lives going to the bull fights in Spain.”
He reached across the table an tugged on my sleeve. “Alex! I and all who were in the war are now the phantom presences.
I had been looking down at my watch when Jake spoke the last few words. But then I looked up and stared into his eyes with new found recognition. He was, like me, a character in a work of fiction—none other than the sad Jake Barnes the narrator of the novel, The Sun Also Rises written by Ernest Hemingway.
NOTE to myself: Good Lord! Is that Hemingway over at the bar? I suppose the author and his character are never separated a least not in CyberSpace.
I’ve read that novel a number of times over the years, always wondering what drew me back to it time and again. It was a story of impossible love. Jake had been grievously wounded-emasculated—by a grenade which landed too near him but not close enough to kill him. Lady Brett Ashley was his true love and yet he could not make love. Although she loved him too, she sought solace elsewhere with many men. And so, he and some friends travelled in the novel rather pointlessly across Spain to find the bullfights which now struck me as significant.
What was it–a mood of irretrievable sadness, loss and longing which floated listlessly like plumes of smoke? But it so captivated me by seeping into my spirit.
How did the writer, Ernest Hemingway, possibly convey such intensity of feeling through the arrangement of words on a page? It was as if Hemingway had somehow breathed the essence of the feeling directly from his soul onto the very pages of the book. You could not point to any chapter, paragraph or sentence and say—“this is where he expresses that feeling!” Instead, the entire work—its totality—was beautifully infused with that sense of loss and longing. For me that was true ART.
Strangely I could find little else to say to Jake Barnes. Usually I am much more talkative with those I meet in these CyberSpace adventures. Why was today so different? At the time of the First World War, many said it was the war to end all wars. But humankind has not advanced sufficiently to leave such destructiveness behind. I did not want to tell him that this was so even today.
Jake stubbed out his cigarette and waved at the waiter. He paid and, with a brief nod and handshake, left the café. “Thank you for listening,” was all he said.
And so, I was left to think about how an artist can create out of paint or paper and pen an intense mood or feeling. Certainly, it must come from deep within the artist. I think the rest is magic.
I blinked several times and found that I was now standing before that painting in my studio still wondering how to capture a mood which had grown more intense but more elusive.
Have you ever struggled with this artistic dilemma or some other challenge? If so, why not leave a comment about it or anything else.
As you can see, Alexander Wainwright is a fictional character. If you like adventure combined with art and philosophic musings then give The Trilogy of Remembrance a try. You can purchase from the carousel below or anywhere books are sold online.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing. Presently, The Drawing Lesson is a Wattpad Featured novel which you can read in its entirety right here Wattpad.com