Separate Rooms – Pier Vittorio Tondelli

SRs(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This is a very moving love story. It’s understated, with no graphic details, so we can concentrate on the people and their feelings.

I don’t usually read any books that mention AIDS because I prefer escapism in my reading but this book was a welcome exception, musing on introversion, companionship and loss.

On the pros and cons of a civil partnership: Thomas’s father comes back in. Leo realizes he should leave. In this last moment, Thomas is back in the family fold, with the very same people who brought him into the world. Now, with their hearts torn asunder by suffering, they are trying to help Thomas to die. There is no room for Leo in this parental reconciliation. Leo is not married to Thomas. He has not had children with him. Neither of them bears the other’s name at the registry office, and there is not a single legal record on the face of the earth that carries the signatures of witnesses to their union. Yet for more than three years they have been passionately in love with one another. They have lived together in Paris and Milan, and they have travelled round Europe together. They have written together, played music together and danced together. They have quarrelled and abused each other, and even hated each other. They have been in love. But it is as if, without warning, beside that deathbed, Leo realized that he had experienced not a great love story, but rather some little school crush. As if they were telling him: You’ve both had a good time, and that’s okay too. But here we’re fighting a life and death struggle. Here a life is at stake. And we—a father, a mother and a son—are what really matters in life.

On introversion: When he was with Thomas he never asked himself about the deep-seated reasons why a person will live his life on his own, without having a family, without lovers. He does not have any children but, despite-that, he can in no way be described as a person for whom something is missing. In the glorification of his present solitude, which he has been pursuing for months as something worthwhile rather than something required, he forces himself to investigate other forms of solitude in the hope that they might teach him how to behave. He wants to get the better of himself, but to do so, and in order not to find himself ever again swept away in the karma of falling in love—never again to utter those words that he had said to Thomas, “I-love-you”, to anybody else—he needs someone who will teach him, someone to square up to.

Come to think of it, he has always been alone, which is why he knows how to deal with it. He never has a problem knowing what to do with his time, or what to do at night. He likes sleeping, he enjoys writing and reading, and every so often he enjoys chatting to people he does not know. But he has never felt as alone as he has since he lost Thomas, because in losing Thomas he has lost something that made the long sequence of youthful solitude bearable. When he travelled across country to go to university he never really talked to anyone on those seemingly endless journeys. The same in class: he never dared to ask questions, or ask for something to be explained. And if someone turned to him to ask something as simple as the time of day, he would stammer a vague reply, as if he were in front of an exam board. Everyone seemed to be better than he, much better looking, much better off, and certainly much cleverer. He would laugh at their quips….

A beautiful description of autumn: Across the continent autumn is putting on a dazzling display. There is stillness and silence. The forests are bursting with colours and the dying undergrowth ignites a whole range of hues, first red, then orange, yellow, russet, violet and black. As if each day the wind pushed a different shade into the air, and bushes and plants absorbed that coloured air in waves. And every so often there were whole hillsides scorched by acid rain. Trees already like skeletons, black and emaciated and charred. Now he is making his way across the Rhineland. The river is full and metallic grey. The barges chug slowly along, looking to Leo as if they are about to sink. He shuts his eyes. With Thomas, once, he had driven by car along the very road now running parallel with the train. It was spring.

On holocaust guilt: Next day, by the river Elbe, near the city ruins, with those damaged steeples blackened by fire and those dilapidated buildings where all that remained were slender, crumbling, riblike walls, like so many mountain spurs, all Leo talked to Thomas about was his father. And the war. And as they strolled along the boulevards of the Zwinger district, a particular memory came to him, as clear as a bell. A memory that had tormented him. He was in an armchair, in his mother’s arms, and they were looking at a film on TV. It was the story of a Jewish child, locked away in a concentration camp, who was saved by an American soldier. He had wept quietly, burying his face in his mother’s armpit, ashamed of his tears. And at the end of the film, when his parents had turned the lights back on in the room to tidy up a bit before going to bed, he felt upset and asked them: why? Now he cannot for the life of him recall what his father or mother replied. He can just remember how a feeling of terror gripped him and ran right through him as he lay in his little bed. He was terrified. He lay all night with his eyes wide open in the dark, breathing silently so that no one would know he was there, his body curled up in fear. And he kept on thinking: “I didn’t do it. I wasn’t responsible for any death camps. I wasn’t even born, and I’ve got nothing to do with those piles of dead bodies and those ditches filled with skeletons. So why do they make me look at the gas chambers? I haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t have anything to do with it. Nothing at all.”
For years and years he had been hounded by a sense of guilt over those gas chambers, over the torture and destruction, as if he, Leo the little boy, had been the person chiefly responsible for it all. Then as he grew older he managed to put it all away in a cranny of his mind. He had built a cocoon of reasons and ideologies and rationalizations around the whole thing. The cocoon did not do away with his fear altogether, but it managed to keep it in check. He had experienced moments of violence. He had seen people beating each other up in the barracks dormitory. He had seen corruption and humiliation. He had seen the strong bullying the weak, but the cocoon had never opened up. It was still there and he thought he had almost got over all that. He was grown up. He was a man now, and he knew the score.

There is a good description of travelling on the Berlin underground before the wall came down, of being alone in a double-bed, waking up and realising that there is nobody else there.

On spirituality: has turned his obsession into an open gaze at himself. Since Thomas died, it is as if his sensibility has been purified. And now he is trying to head for what is essential. In this sense Thomas is not just a corpse that weighs him down, but a grain of life buried in his own mortality. Deep down, he is nurturing this grain, keeping it warm, helping it to grow, and trying to grow with it. Because with all his complicated introjections and repressions, Thomas is now the enlightened one, the one who has gone further. When Leo had seen him on his deathbed, in sweatcloths, he had thought that Thomas was changing back into Thomas-the-child; that in the short time left to him he was proceeding towards his origins; that through the enormity of his suffering he was changing not into something different, but into something that closely resembled him much more: infantile matter formed prematurely that yearned for the hush of nothingness.
So what he calls prayer is nothing more than an attitude of paying heed to things and people, observing and contemplating, and realizing that he must be involved with his own way of being. He has no altars to kneel down before. He has no temples or images to offer sacrifices to. So he celebrates life itself as a liturgy. He is aware of the presence of the sacred as something tangible in reality, something on which his gaze can alight with devoutness. When he thinks of prayer he says to himself: “I don’t know how to pray. But most of all I don’t know who to pray to.” Then he recalls his childhood, those hours of meditation, those discussions with priests, and the recital of all those words. And in his bookcase his hand automatically seeks out the Bible. He is happiest reading the Old Testament, in particular the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea. This preference is based not only on aesthetic considerations, but also, and more pertinently, on the fact that he still does not feel that redemption has arrived in his life; and the gospels appear to him like so many tableaux in a story he has yet to understand. But when he reads Hosea, when he reflects on the metaphor which makes God elect to conceive his people from the belly of a prostitute; when he considers the fact that God turns to his son in the language of a lover, when he sees him bent over the infant Israel, holding his hand as he teaches him how to walk; when he sees him enraged by the betrayal and the deaf ear with which his extreme love is returned, then Leo senses within himself his own religious calling like something that cannot be renounced. He does not have the serenity of the mystic. He simply has the inner upheavals of a soul dedicated to a quest. “You have been bitten by the metaphysical bug,” a smiling priest friend had said to him one day.
Many a time he had caught himself saying: “I can’t live without God, but I can live without religion.” He may have abandoned the practice of religion which was part of his boyhood, and which taught him how to interpret the world, and his surroundings, and his feelings, but he did so because he would not reconcile his life and his mysticism. He did so because his quest for God was sexual as well as emotional. At the same time he saw religion being practised in a weak and mawkish way, in a way that was emasculated and enfeebled, lacking the fertile passion and the violent receptivity of femininity or the exuberance of virility. A religion without sex for people who are afraid of the passions and the power of love. An accommodating, bourgeois religion, that is more often than not hypocritical. At the same time, on the other hand, even in his silent prayers, he was aware of putting his entire sexuality on the line. This is why he read Hosea. Because in those pages there was not an exclusively mental or spiritual vision of the relationship between God and His people. Rather, there was a representation of bodies, a representation of prostitution and wantonness, of the frenzy of separation, of wrath and of paternal protection. As has always been the case since time immemorial between people who love one another.

At times he had prayed while he was making love. His eyes strayed over the naked object of his desire with a most chaste, even virginal, reverence. He was aware of the miracle of having beside him the beauty of creation, and the wonder of being able to gaze upon it in silence. The wonder of being able to touch it with the rapt tips of his fingers, just as his eyes could stroke mountains at sunset. There was not the remotest notion of possessing the other, or having dominion over him. He did not want to steal anything, claim anything, or take anything away. He wanted everything to stay intact as it was in a feeling of gratitude and fullness. Hours could pass by in these insightful moments in which the loved one’s body became the universe, with its various constellations and its various worlds. And those occasions when it was Thomas who became immersed with him, whose eyes and hands ran across his body, on those occasions he would also pray, slipping off into slumber, because he was feeling the joy of experiencing his embarrassing finiteness as something that gave peace to others. He had used up most of a lifetime to achieve these moments of love and devotion—because they were in reality occasions to take stock—and from Isaiah and Virgil he called them the Golden Age. They were moments of such intimacy that some instinctive modesty had prevented him from ever talking about them with Thomas.
The desire for religion was triggered off when Hermann left him. In that period the sense of separation made Leo feel that he was constantly reduced to nothing. He felt he could not live without some values that were strong and comforting. In that moment he resurrected religion from his own consciousness, saying to himself: “If I’ve been a believer for eighteen years, why can’t I go on being a believer?” But he really did not manage to go on. He had gone to see a priest and he had told him, under the confessional oath, what was happening to him. As he spoke, embarrassed and confused, he realized that the person who was most perplexed was in fact the priest, who stammered “My God! My God!”, while clutching his rosary.

Leo could see the sweat running down his fingers that gripped the rosary. And then with a gesture of pride, because nothing gives one more courage than seeing others in a state of confusion and embarrassment, he, Leo the man, had said to the priest: “I want to live the way I am. Why should my freedom be judged by the conscience of others? Why should I be reproached for things for which I give thanks? This is written in the first epistle to the Corinthians. So why should I repent? I want to be happy. The fact that I must live seems atonement enough in my eyes. Only one man has been saved, father, not ten, or a hundred, or a thousand. And if one life was enough, just one, to reconcile a billion creatures to God, then this can only show us the huge pain of living. I cannot love the religion of sackcloth and suffering. I would like to love the religion of fullness. I want to be happy in my religion, because I experience it like a biological need, like eating and drinking and making love. But you don’t seem to understand this. I’m trying to tell you all this sincerely, but you deny my very existence. Yet for all you and I know, even dogs have a God.”
No, in this way it was just a trap. He could have joined a religious community. They would have been delighted to take him in. They would have felt even more in the right because the lost sheep had returned to the fold. But he could not give up his very own self. He could not cripple himself, and become one of those millions who are emasculated by religion—a poor, soul, dejected and penitent, and impoverished by the world. And for this reason he had slowly, day by day, aborted his need for God. If the fact of Hermann leaving him high and dry had pushed him towards a solitary pilgrimage and introspection, his separation from Thomas is pushing him towards religiousness and the sacred. With Hermann, perhaps, he had fully realized his need for the flesh-and-blood absolute in a love affair. And when he had been robbed of that, he had sought out in compensation the experience of mysticism.

Separation is an integral part of a relationship: “Now he had to give serious thought to the notion of living together with another man. But he had no models to follow, no experience to recycle and fall back on in this stage of their relationship. He knew that the love he still felt for Thomas would not be enough on its own. They would tear each other to pieces and that was the last thing he wanted… Living together meant believing in values that neither of them was capable of recognizing. How would their love end? Would they have no option but to normalize a relationship that society was in fact incapable of accepting as something normal? Would they not turn into the mirror image of those grotesque homosexual couples where one does all the cooking and the other always goes to the market to do the shopping? Where the two lovers resemble each other in their attitudes, in their way of doing things, even in their facial expressions, to the point where they become two pathetic replicas of one and the same unbearable imaginary male, emasculated and effeminate?”

Later: the fact that they lived apart had been a spur to staying together. Now he had to give serious thought to the notion of living together with another man. But he had no models to follow, no experience to recycle and fall back on in this stage of their relationship. He knew that the love he still felt for Thomas would not be enough on its own. They would tear each other to pieces and that was the last thing he wanted. They would hurt each other, and then they would leave each other high and dry. Living together meant believing in values that neither of them was capable of recognizing. How would their love end? Would they have no option but to normalize a relationship that society was in fact incapable of accepting as something normal? Would they not turn into the mirror image of those grotesque homosexual couples where one does all the cooking and the other always goes to the market to do the shopping? Where the two lovers resemble each other in their attitudes, in their way of doing things, even in their facial expressions, to the point where they become two pathetic replicas of one and the same unbearable imaginary male, emasculated and effeminate?…. The two words, but with a significance that seemed to Leo to be as full and adequate as a well worked out concept—the tiny phrase that he found himself writing in one of his letters was “separate rooms”. And he explained to Thomas that, with him, what he wanted was a relationship based on proximity, a relationship that involved belonging to each other, but not possessing each other. He explained he was happier to be on his own, but at the same time he thought of Thomas as his preferred lover, the favourite partner in a perennial engagement. He explained that they should not be afraid of their solitude, that, rather, they should experience it as the most complete fruit of their love, because, essentially, even being apart, they belonged to one another and still loved each other. He explained that they would spend the spring and summer of every year travelling together, and that in the winter they would each work on their own projects. He explained that it was a difficult choice, above all a different choice, but that in his heart he, Leo, knew he could not handle it any other way. Last of all he explained that he would be faithful to “separate rooms” until his death.

All in all, to what extent to we idealise (idolise) ‘perfect’ relationships with the ‘right’ partner and miss out on all sorts of possibilities?

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