Hamish Clayton reflects on The English Patient.
“The first time she dreamed of him she woke up beside her husband screaming.” When I was 21, I wrote that line out dozens of times, by hand, into a battered school exercise book. I was convinced that it was the best opening line I’d ever read. Even now, 14 years later, it’s still not too bad and it’s one to which I often return. Unfortunately it wasn’t one of mine. It couldn’t have been; if you’re writing the best opening lines you’ve ever read when you’re 21, then you’re either misguided or a genius. I knew I wasn’t a genius; I could only hope I wasn’t misguided as I copied those lines again and again into a nondescript exercise book; the idea was that by rehearsing them over and over then I would learn the secret of their cadence and their rhythm, that I would somehow begin to channel something of their psychological edge and the rich sense of the private, almost background, drama they promised was about to unfold. For it seemed to me then, as it does now, that those words carried more weight and intensity than all the words in many other novels I’d read.
It’s not, however, strictly speaking an opening line; it doesn’t open a novel or a short story, but a chapter within a novel. It unlocks a flashback scene which runs for only 10 pages, about 3000 words, and tells one version of the love affair which sits at the heart of the whole book. (Studiously, I wasn’t only copying out the chapter’s first line; often I carried on through entire paragraphs and completed the whole thing; there was a time when I could recite a good three or four pages of the novel.) The reason I counted it as an opening line was that the brief chapter it leads off stood in my mind as one of the most absorbing short stories I’d ever read. If there was nothing worse than a boring short story, then there was perhaps nothing better than the short story that evoked the depth of a full novel. This was one of those. The story not only traversed the failed love affair and the uncompromising nature of that particular kind of heartache, but did so against a whole, and to my mind, thoroughly realised landscape of pre-WWII desert exploration, set both in the desert itself and the bars of Cairo. Later I learned that Michael Ondaatje had fictionalised his Cairo of The English Patient, where Katharine and Almásy play out their doomed affair, just as he had fictionalised much of the historical basis for the entire novel, but by then it hardly seemed to matter; I’d read the book and afterwards everything changed.
I’d read it to begin with because of a girl. And though I didn’t get the girl, that hardly seemed to matter either. What mattered was that until then I’d only dabbled with fiction but having passed into this landscape rendered in such arresting language I swiftly began to lose interest in painting ‒ the dominating concern until then ‒ and switched my attention to writing. Under Ondaatje’s spell, of course, the visual was never going to be abandoned altogether, and much of the book’s appeal was registered, for me, in visual terms. There was the calm, cinematic precision of domestic scenes, gliding over the page as though Vermeer paintings were being played out: “In the kitchen she doesn’t pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness, and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.” There was other, more violent imagery: “The Bedouin knew about fire. They knew about planes that since 1939 had been falling out of the sky … I was perhaps the first one to stand up alive out of a burning machine. A man whose head was on fire.” But always there was a sensuality, an instinct for richness, whose full aesthetic force was allowed through Ondaatje’s refined handling of pace and suggestion: “He remembers picnics, a woman who kissed parts of his body that are now burned into the colour of aubergine.”
The quality of the prose seemed to lie in a luminosity that reminded me of high art, of paintings given over to a staggering but restrained formal beauty. Yet the musicality of the language was not solely geared towards beautiful imagery, but often put to more subtle and lasting psychological ends. The strangely subdued but soaring breadth of its opening pages still grips me: how those quiet stone rooms of the Italian hillside villa open into the desert vistas as the “English” patient, Hungarian Count Almásy, burned beyond recognition, relates the other world of the Sahara, like a kind of metaphor for his own amnesia, to the young Canadian nurse, Hana, in the “stories [he] recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk.” Elsewhere, violence and eroticism collide as Katharine considers her attraction to Almásy in terms that are both sexual and psychological: “A year later the other, more dangerous, peaceful dreams came. And even within the first one of these she recalled the hands at her neck and waited for the mood of calmness between them to swerve to violence.” Later, years after the end of their affair, when Katharine herself has died, there is even a passage suggestive at least of necrophilia:
She was on her back, positioned the way the medieval dead lie.
I approached her naked as I would have done in our South Cairo room, wanting to undress her, still wanting to love her.
What is terrible in what I did? …. There are some European words you can never translate properly into another language. Felhomaly. The dusk of graves. With the connotation of intimacy there between the dead and the living.
I was one of those readers who missed the suggestion altogether the first time around. And yet somehow that speaks to one of the overriding qualities of the writing, in this novel whose governing aesthetic trades on the collision between the impermanence of memory and desire on the one hand, and the physicality of sense and sensuality on the other; in The English Patient the care of the cadences often elides another layer of direct or psychological meaning, and perhaps that is why this novel, that I was seduced by years ago, is also one to which I will often return.
I read it because it is beautiful. I read it because it’s a ripping yarn: not only a love story but an anti-war spy-novel with shades of historiographical meta-fiction. But perhaps most especially I read it because so often so many of its images and sentences that seem at first to veer dangerously towards pure abstraction are to be savoured precisely in order for their slow, sure meaning to be revealed. My battered copy is most often to be found in close proximity to wherever I happen to be writing. And though it can be dangerous to read another’s work while writing one’s own, there are times too that turning away from your own and towards another can help. That way I can open it at random, to find passages whose cadences first sat with me years ago and whose meanings I now carry with me, outside the world of the novel and into the one I choose to inhabit:
I am a man whose life in many ways, even as an explorer, has been governed by words. By rumours and legends. Charted things. Shards written down. The tact of words. In the desert to repeat something would be to fling more water into the earth. Here nuance took you a hundred miles.