The sun shone brightly into the living room and the air was fresh and warm and carried the ambient sounds of the street gently in. Olive opened the windows and the tranquil scent of lavender drifted in from the garden. Henry had been sifting through their record collection to find a favourite record of his. He would remind us whenever he played this record, and countless others, of how lucky we were that an optometrist from New Jersey had more interest in the health of the ears than the eyes. He was referring to Rudy van Gelder, the lauded recording engineer, whose recordings Henry cherished and played often. They were sitting in the living room taking their coffee and were listening to Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. It reminded them both of their recent vacation in New York where they had heard a young, upcoming quintet’s rendition of the titular song at The Village Vanguard. They both loved jazz and always made sure to visit a jazz club in each city they visited. They had been visiting the Vanguard for years, seeing incredible performances by the likes of Tyner, Marsalis and Coleman.
‘Would you please put on that Ellington record we bought in Vienna, my love.’
Henry stared blankly into his coffee.
‘Yes?’ Henry replied, brusquely.
‘Did you not hear me, Henry?’ Olive’s eyes were watering.
Henry winced. Despite his growing callousness towards most, he wrestled with himself to suppress, as best he could, his apathy and express the greatest degree of affection toward Olive. He still loved her dearly and understood, painfully, that she knew it less with each day he allowed himself to be enveloped further into Melancholy.
He attempted to speak, but his parted lips allowed only the desire to speak to be heard. Seeing his struggle, Olive tried to compose herself to unburden him. She was disproportionally brave, but even the most enduring bravery knows limits and her courage waned with his growing detachment.
‘I’m sorry, Olive,’ Henry muttered, disappointment lacing his apology. A deep, bitter, seemingly irrevocable disappointment in himself. To his, and all others’ dismay, there was no stagnation in his deterioration. Each moment he was not climbing back from the bleak abyss he was plunging rapidly further into it.
‘It’s okay, Henry,’ Olive responded, inhaling deeply, and placing her hand upon his, ‘I understand.’ But, through no fault of her own, she did not understand, nobody understood, not even Henry.
They allowed silence to speak its coarse rhetoric until it was interrupted by knocking. Olive rose and made her way to the door.
‘Oh, Charlie! Lovely to see you, though a few hours earlier than anticipated,’ Henry overheard Olive say to his brother, ‘is everything alright?’
‘I’m sorry to intrude, I know I wasn’t expected until later, but I was just wandering around, exploring the outskirts, and found myself in your neighbourhood, and figured I would pop in to see if Henry were available,’ Charlie explained jovially.
‘It’s quite wonderful to lose oneself in a foreign city! You must be parched. Would you care for a drink?’ Olive offered, ‘I’ve just squeezed a bunch of the Seville oranges you had brought around and they are as delightfully zestful as you!’
‘You are charming, Olive! I would love a glass. Afterward, I hope you’ll join me for a saunter before dinner Henry,’ Charlie responded, glancing hopefully at his brother.
‘I think that’s a capital ideal, Charlie! Late spring walks are nectar for the mind and what an ambrosial afternoon we have today’ remarked Olive, equally hopeful that Henry would curb his lethargy. He loved to walk. They spent countless hours roving the streets of Marseille, or Maremma, or Montreal, engaging in vibrant, prismatic tête-à-têtes.
‘Absolutely! Something in the perfume of the blossoms and the promise of impending warmth that colours the air sublimely,’ Charlie agreed.
‘The fragrance of new life saddens me…’ Henry interjected, ‘the blossoms remind me of our mortality. How temporary we are! The magnolia, in its alabaster glory, withers and is not for a season, but returns, unfailingly, vibrantly, the next. We forever seek to reach some point, some fleeting point of sublimity, and invariably fail and are rewarded for our inadequacy by withering painfully, over many lingering seasons. If only we were the root, not the bloom! Beautiful in its futility is the attempt of the flower to bury itself in juvenile hope of legacy, of permanence, of immortality…’ Henry drifted back into himself. He spoke dulcetly. Despite his darkening world view, and the growing cynicism of his sentiments, his tone remained euphonic as if in protest, as the crème brûlée’s decadent delicacy of its lower layer cries out to be revealed only scarcely concealed by its hardened veneer.
He wasn’t wrong. We could not disagree with him, as there was poignancy in his sentiments that evoked a certain pathos in us all. It was that this outlook had consumed him, obfuscating his previous paradigms of compassion and generosity and humour. He spoke of virtue and morality with inexhaustible vitality and his countless displays of selflessness inspired us to weave our tapestry with greater magnanimity. The loss of his vivacity had dimmed our own views, for we thought that if Henry, who had dedicated his life to reading and writing and listening and observing, felt that life was ultimately fruitless, what hope did we have to discover a truth he had not yet discerned.
‘Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul,’ Charlie quoted Wilde, a favourite writer of Henry’s, in the hope that reminding him of this statement, which Henry once quoted often and proudly, would restore his belief in it. He would employ it most often when any of us felt dejected and lackluster.
‘I thought you never could read Dorian Gray,’ Henry recalled, chuckling, ‘it was—what was the word you used—salacious! That it was salacious.’
‘I did, but my judgment was premature’ Charlie grinned, ‘you were always quoting him, so I figured I’d regret not trying again. He’s brilliant, but my God, was he troubled… Anyhow, enough tarrying, the sun is high and the gelato isn’t going to eat itself, so will you join me, or would you rather idly watch another day pass you?’ Charlie asked, hoping he hadn’t overstepped and had enticed, rather than deterred, his brother.
Henry placed his hand to his chin, feigning thought.
‘Henry, do go, it’ll give me time to prepare dinner and you can pick up the Vermouth di Torino I asked Alessandro for and a litre of lemon gelato, if it won’t weigh you down too heavily,’ Olive jived.
‘Okay, I’ll go. You should have made the case for gelato before perfumed blossoms, Charlie’ Henry grumbled with subtle jocoseness.
‘I’ll bear that in mind for next time,’ Charlie responded genially.
He changed from his silk gown into his favourite spring suit, made of Egyptian blue line, whose colour Olive had chosen from dozens of swatch books at Liverano and Liverano. As they walked out of the home and down the pathway, the sun kissed them gently, but with enough vigor for Henry to remove his blazer and fling it over his shoulder, letting it drape indifferently from his index finger. They passed the exquisite primrose that Olive tended and Henry inhaled deeply.
‘Where shall we walk?’ asked Charlie.
‘Wherever you like,’ responded Henry.
‘I was at the Boboli Gardens yesterday and it was quite lovely. Would you mind?’
‘The Boboli it is.’
After graduating university in Rome, Henry and Olive, after a brief stint back in New York to meet each other’s parents, decided to move to Florence. They shared a mutual adoration of Tuscany, and though they both enjoyed their time in Rome, felt Florence suited their pace better. After stints with various architects, Olive was now working remotely with the renowned architect Renzo Piano. She would infrequently travel to the Genoa office, but recently had been frequently travelling to Paris for the completion of the new Parisian courthouse. This afforded Henry many hours of solitude to attempt to write his next novel. Usually, these hours of solitude brought about his best writing, but he had stagnated under the pressure he had put himself under to produce a work that captured the human condition in a novel and more complete fashion than he had before. Consequent to his tarrying, he began to ponder too deeply; there is such a thing and it leads to delving dangerously into the straits of contemplation that provide naught but bewildering dissatisfaction and strange, unfounded antipathy.
He began drinking more, and the wine he savoured by the glass became the wine he indulged by the bottle. His writing suffered. When he would write, his thoughts expressed themselves acrimoniously, diametrically opposite to his trademark style of compassion and consideration. Deeply was he affected by his incapability of ascertaining what he considered meaningful and worthwhile discoveries about the human condition. What often began as a viable discourse on the nature of the human condition quickly morphed into a soliloquy on Henry’s caustic view that after decades of futile attempts at pegging some esoteric or ethereal meaning to the life of the human, he now concluded that the human condition could be summarised in a single word: affliction. Against this conclusion, Olive, their families and friends argued vehemently. In particular, an aunt of Olive’s, Rosalyn, whom Henry greatly respected and admired, would sit with Henry for hours, refusing to accept his premise in the slightest. She appreciated Henry’s wit and emotionality and enjoyed thoroughly their much protracted conversations over the years, which made it all the more difficult to accept this descent into despondency, and fuelled her determination to reject the glum sentiments that he had begun pontificating.
They had been wandering around the gardens seemingly without destination, but Henry had dictated the route so as to pass Fontana del Nuttuno, a statue he had taken liking to from his first visit.
Standing in front of Neptune wielding his trident, Henry smiled slyly to himself.
Robert, noticing this, asked: ‘Is there something you wish to share, Henry?’
‘Yes, there is. I am troubled by this statue. The Medici’s took credit for the renaissance of Florence, but they forget their bibliography. It’s said that young Catherine brought forks to France, to introduce to the French a little culinary sophistication, for her wedding to Henry the Second and they were fashionable before they even hit the table. But Catherine, selfishly, never thanked Neptune for the idea,’ Henry explained soberly, confusing Charlie.
‘I can’t tell if you’re quite serious, Henry…’
‘Think about it, Robert,’ continued Henry, stifling his laughter, ‘here is a God, already angry and violent, whose patent for his proud invention was never approved by his puritanical brother. Some archaic sculptor sees him while fishing off the coast of Naxos and, in awe, sculpts him—curls, musculature and fork. Catherine, tired of eating pasta with a spoon and knife, orders some welder to design a trident, just like Neptune’s, only smaller. He does, and she takes to France ‘her’ invention without even a whisper of thanks to poor Neptune. They say some Franciscan friar led the ousting of the Medici’s, but there’s every chance Neptune was behind the whole expulsion. Luckily for the Florentines, the city is landlocked…’.
Robert wore a bewildered expression. He had grown accustomed to Henry’s vacillation, but at times was still caught off guard by how one moment he could be wholly dispirited and the next brimming with lively humour.
‘I’m entirely perplexed by you, Henry,’ exclaimed Charlie frustratingly, ‘how can you fluctuate this severely between sadness and joy? With due respect, there are moments when I believe you have created and occupy your own sphere of existence, where the laws that govern the rest of us don’t apply to you. The luxury of being human is being understood, but not until one attempts to understand. Whereas you have decided that you would like to be understood without ever trying, despite your protestation, to understand anyone or anything that does not first attempt to understand you. Intellect abandons itself through selfishness and you have abandoned your intellect, betrayed it even, by falling for your own artful charm!’ He had surprised himself, and Henry, with his outburst. Charlie had always been sensitive to Henry’s emotions, but not being alone in this sentiment, as well as seeing the damage being done to his marriage, he felt overwhelmingly compelled to speak his mind.
In turn, Henry stood astonished, taken aback by Charlie’s bold rebuke. He was unused to excoriation from his brother, from very few people in fact. He sat down. Charlie wanted to apologise, but knew he should not, instead he sat next to Henry silently and waited.
‘How long have you felt this way?’ Henry asked, manifestly unnerved.
‘For some time now…’ Charlie began, but suddenly feeling that he should not push Henry lest he worsened, began to backpedal, ‘though I must just be bothered by the heat, you know I don’t handle it well.’ Charlie lied, hoping Henry would discontinue the conversation.
‘Charlie, we’re adults, you need not spare my feelings. Tell me how you truly feel,’ Henry prompted calmly.
It wasn’t the first time Henry had asked his brother to express his honest opinion of him and Charlie was tentative to divulge the extent of his and their family’s concern as Henry handled criticism coarsely, although over the years he had worked hard to receive criticism gracefully, there were times when he felt severely offended and berated his critic in a frenzied, egotistical defence.
‘I’d really rather not, Henry. Besides, you are an intellect, are you not? You don’t need my opinion, nor are you incapable of surmising it for yourself.’
‘Flattered as I am, I would rather your honesty over my conjecture, Charlie. Indulge me and I promise I will receive your thoughts well.’
‘You’re erudite and compassionate and empathetic, Henry. You understand the world better than most of us. Are you telling me, truly, that you are so oblivious to yourself and your actions that you have not realised the strife you are putting those who love you through?’.
A long pause ensued. The sound of falling water and the chirping of sparrows intensified the strained silence. Henry stared at Neptune, his brows knit in vexation. Charlie felt entirely unsure of the pending reaction and sought to speak so as to diverge from the potentially detrimental conversation that seemed imminent each passing moment. Henry spoke before he could divert the conversation.
‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Charlie,’ admitted Henry sincerely, crestfallen, ‘I feel alone, I feel lost, I feel incomplete. I have achieved most of what I wished to achieve and have been immensely fortunate in my life to have had unconditional, continuous support in my endeavours both personal and professional. I have my health. I have a caring, loving, charming wife. I have two gorgeous children who have made me prouder than I could have ever imagined. I have you and Samantha. I have a wonderful family and beautiful friends. I have written a body of work that I never dreamed I could have that have been well-received and widely understood. I have nothing to complain about and everything to be grateful for and fulfilled by.’ He paused, as though he had realised as he spoke aloud the story of his life how selfish and thankless he had been for his abundant good fortune. Sighing heavily, he continued, ‘But Charlie, somehow, for some unknown, ungodly reason, I feel empty. I have tried relentlessly to find some semblance, some throwaway, infinitesimal scrap of true, unadulterated meaning and have unfailingly failed. Why can’t I be satisfied with everything I have? I have plenty! Why have I persisted on this wild goose chase for some other kind of universal meaning? Am I being ridiculous? Surely I am, for any sane person could not have lived the life I have lived and still feel a hollow, insignificant person.’ He spoke sorrowfully, with a profound sadness that exhausted his voice.
‘Last week, Olive and I went to the theatre to see L’elisir D’amore. I laughed to myself throughout the first act, thinking that if I were Nemorino, I would ask Dulcamara to concoct a potion that would make me fall in love with the world again only, I’m sure, for him to ridicule such an absurd request. Anyhow, as has become custom, I began to drink much too early and by the time I finished my interval martini, I was in a poor state. I told Olive I would meet her at our seats and went to the bathroom. Whilst washing, I felt a wave of fatigue followed by sudden, severe dizziness. What felt like hours—but was only moments—later I found myself supine, staring at the ceiling, contemplating my life and attempting desperately to deduce the circumstances that had found me inebriated and disconsolate, laying helplessly on a bathroom floor…’.
‘And did you determine how you arrived there?’ Charlie asked warmly, sensing the opportunity for more, sincere discourse, but was inwardly shocked and saddened by his brother’s experience.
‘I know it must seem incredulous, Charlie, but I just don’t know the root of this incurable dissatisfaction.’
‘Have you ever considered the premise that your self-diagnosed lifelong dissatisfaction may stem from your insatiable desire to view the world as you want it to be rather than as it is, and because there will forever remain a disparity between your romantic desires for the world and its steadfast pragmatism, you will remain discontent unless you alter your admirable albeit jejune paradigm and accept the world, the rest of us and most importantly, yourself, as imperfect. Maybe then you can return to your youthful, unperturbed days of true and fleeting romance and begin to enjoy life and all of its extraordinary offerings unmarred by its unavoidable imperfection.’
They were both shocked. Henry had never heard Charlie speak with such frankness and eloquence. Charlie had surprised himself and could see that he had struck a deep, untouched chord and hoped, that if he could truly understand his brother’s emotions carefully enough, a cathartic dialogue could ensue.
‘Why don’t we continue walking, Henry?’ suggested Charlie.
Henry, occupied by myriad thoughts, agreed and they begun to walk again.
They walked on Viale Della Meridiana, passing the limonaia, enjoying its generous fragrance. Henry asked Charlie to sit with him at the enoteca in front of Basilica di Santo Spirito. Charlie obliged. They both ordered Campari and tonic.
The conversation at the gardens had deeply affected Henry. It was as though the veil behind which he had been living had been slightly lifted and life around him had been rendered slightly more vivid.
‘Henry,’ began Charlie, ‘I trust I haven’t offended you. Everything I said comes wholly from a place of care, and since the subject has been broached, I hope we can speak further on it if you feel comfortable.’
Henry, stirring his drink, listened intently to Charlie, but fixedly gazed on the Basilica. Charlie sipped his drink and felt refreshed—they both drank a great deal of Campari and it had become a family tradition to gift the rarest and largest bottles they could find to each other, resulting in the both of them having absurdly large stockpiles of the aperitif.
‘Why do you think Brunelleschi and Manetti chose such a simple façade for their church? Do you find it incongruent with the grandeur of the interior?’ inquired Henry.
‘You would not like to continue the conversation, Henry?’
‘Perhaps I am continuing the conversation, Charlie.’
‘Answer my question and it may become apparent.’
‘It’s art, Henry. Does art require congruence? If so, what should it be congruent with? Itself? Its contemporaries? The parameters, if there are, of art?’
‘You are quite eloquent, Charlie. You would have made a wonderful poet.’
‘Do you think so? I disagree. Too pragmatic I think. Anyhow, do you think art requires congruence?’
‘Art must be congruent.’
They both looked at the Basilica viewing it with Henry’s notion of congruence in art. It seemed grander.
‘What do you mean by asking me this, Henry?’.
‘The façade, Charlie, and the interior, are not always harmonious. For some time now—a long time—I have felt discordant with myself and, consequently, I have been a source of grief for those I care most deeply for. We are promised from our youth, that if we strive to fulfil our potential, we in turn will be fulfilled. That through striving we will find gratitude and humility and that through accomplishment we will find contentment and actualisation. I felt grateful, I still do, for all I have. No feat of mine belongs exclusively to me. I am humbled by my experiences and humbled further by the endless aid and encouragement I received and continue to receive in my pursuit of novelty and originality of experience. I have given myself entirely to my art. Yet, I find myself incongruent; with my work, with those I love, with myself. For all the Dostoyevsky and Proust and Shakespeare I have read and reread, for all the paintings and sculptures and architecture I have travelled far and wide to view, for all the symphonies and operas and concerts I have attended, for all the poems and essays and novels I have written, I have felt incomplete. What you said earlier, about my insatiable desire to view the world as I want it rather than as it is reminded me of my lack of maturity, of erudition, which I sophomorically fancied myself to have had. But I feel that your honesty has roused me, prompting me to view myself with the same candidness with which you spoke and to stop indulging my ludicrous naïveté. I feel something, miniscule, but something nonetheless, developing from within, and I am determined to explore it completely.’ Henry spoke resolutely, and for the first time in years, Charlie saw a trace of the zeal that Henry once permanently embodied return to his demeanour. It did not feel like the sporadic moments when Henry would speak fleetingly of some trivial, albeit exciting subject matter that aroused his passing interest. He felt confident that some small cog had begun to creak in the depths of Henry’s mind, inciting a novel, fruitful paradigm.
‘I am proud of you, Henry, incredibly proud,’ Charlie responded, ‘Olive must be expecting us soon and we still have to pick up the gelato and vermouth.’
‘Let’s not tarry longer then,’ replied Henry energetically, taking down the last of his aperitif, ‘it’s only a few minutes to the gelataria from here.’
They rose and Henry shook the waiter’s hand, complementing him on the quality of their oranges and tonic, then strode onto Piazza Santo Spirito toward Sbrino. The lively bouquet of citrus floated from the gardens, refreshing the air and energised the brothers.