A LIFE OF BLISS by Don Butler
“To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead.” - Bertrand Russell
Bliss Browning glanced down furtively. What ought to have been the robust symbol of his manhood had nearly vanished, withered by 40 minutes immersion in the chill waters of the health club swimming pool. Discreetly turning away from the strangers in the shower room, he tugged at his shrunken shaft as jets of water drummed on his abdomen. This stretching exercise was something of a ritual for Browning, who had a pathological fear of ridicule from the better-endowed men with whom he shared his nakedness. He could have eliminated this risk by leaving his bathing suit on while he showered, or by dispensing with a shower entirely. But at the health club, this behaviour would have been seen as abnormal. With the peculiar logic of the truly obsessive, Browning reasoned that he stood a better chance of avoiding attention if he blended in with the prevailing culture, even if it meant baring his privates to the judgment of others.
Admittedly, the dimensions of male members vary widely. But relatively few men are cursed with the cocktail sausage that dangled between Browning’s legs, whose inadequacy, he imagined, symbolized his own unmemorable life – his fleeting marriage, mediocre career and paucity of true friends.
Yet he clung to a thin hope that things could be different. The feeling was little more than an intuition that fate would eventually reward him for whatever virtues he possessed. Armed with that uncertain belief, he steeled himself to partake of life.
The lane swimming was part of that discipline. Three times a week, Browning trekked to the health club to grind through grim, endless laps in a Sisyphean effort to transform his flabby body into something worthy of admiration. Three times a week, he was forced to acknowledge that no amount of front crawl could overturn nature. Yet he dutifully returned every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, because the alternative — withdrawal, solitude, decay — was unthinkable.
The health club visits were among Browning’s few regular sources of social connection. Not that he actually interacted with his fellow club members. He visited alone, churned through his swim, showered and dressed in silence. While others chatted with friends or genial strangers, Browning avoided eye contact and was rarely approached. He told himself he preferred it that way.
“Keep yanking on that thing and it might come off.”
The words cut through the shower room like a fart at a funeral. With sudden horror, Browning realized that his right hand was absently plucking at his penis, and that the beefy, red-faced man to his left was gazing at him with a mixture of bemusement and contempt. Quickly, he released his prey.
“Beg pardon?” he stammered stupidly.
“Yer dick,” roared the stranger, his loathsome voice rising above the water’s hiss and echoing off the tile walls. A few fellow bathers glanced curiously in Browning's direction. “You're likely to do yourself an injury, tuggin' on the poor little feller like that.”
Synapses misfiring in the sudden stress of this long-feared humiliation, Browning blurted the first thought that came to mind. "It wasn't me," he babbled. "You must have me mixed up with someone else." He instantly realized this was not only unconvincing, but farcical. He shifted swiftly to a strategy of total capitulation. "No, no, it was me all right, is what I meant to say," he amended, with a wild-eyed grin.
Everyone in the steaming shower room was watching now. Like passers-by at the scene of a grisly accident, they were drawn, almost against their will, to witness Browning's self-immolation. He could feel the eyes of a dozen strangers assessing his sex organs, which reflexively shrivelled further.
Browning seemed incapable of speech. He stared helplessly at his tormentor. The red-faced man returned his gaze for a moment, then turned away with a short shake of his head. Heart pounding like a rabbit hotly pursued by wolves, Browning grabbed his shampoo bottle and scampered toward the shower room exit. In his haste, his right foot skidded in a pool of water. Almost gracefully, he did the splits, landing ignominiously on the tile floor.
He sprawled there for a few seconds, too stunned to move. Then an uncontrollable laugh, fueled by a recognition of his own absurdity, began to build. The laugh put final rout to what remained of his dignity. As naked men watched in astonishment, Bliss Browning rolled around on the shower room floor, wracked by choking laughter that rose like magma from within him.
The offices of the Daily Advocate consumed half a city block in the somnolent heart of Canada's capital city, Ottawa. The newspaper, the city's only broadsheet, had occupied its present quarters, a gloomy four-storey red brick building topped with gargoyles representing Liberty, Truth and Courage, for more than a century.
Typical of its dying breed, the Advocate had been slow to embrace change, keeping computers at bay until the early 1980s. For years after that, it opted to employ a small army of compositors to paste up its columns of type rather than shift to a desktop publishing system.
As long as the Advocate was earning outsized profits, its Toronto-based owner, Medialand Corp., had tolerated this Luddite predilection. But now, a few years into the new millennium, the newspaper’s fortunes were in steady decline. Circulation was down a third from its peak. Advertising lineage was half what it used to be. Profits were evaporating. Last year, the paper had, for the first time, laid off employees.
But it wasn't enough. Medialand's bean-counters were losing patience. So far, Reid Hartley, the Advocate's legendary publisher, had been able to keep the corporate vultures off the carcass. But Hartley was 67, closing in on retirement, and pessimism about the future was rife among Advocate staff.
Bliss Browning's piece of this troubled universe was a pale green, vinyl-clad desk in the least accessible corner of the congested second-floor newsroom, piled high with yellowing newspapers, press releases well past their expiry date and glossy travel magazines. A lumpy blue upholstered chair, with the words "Property of Bliss Browning — piss off!" scrawled in red grease pencil on the back, was sometimes tucked under the desk when he arrived for work at 9 a.m. More often, a night shift worker had appropriated it, forcing Browning to scour the newsroom for retrieval.
There were a few personal touches, of course. On his desk, Browning kept a stained ceramic mug that boasted, over an image of an impossibly proportioned woman in a thong bikini, "It's Better in the Bahamas." A calendar from the embassy of Greece dazzled the eye with scenes of Santorini and other Greek islands. Taped to the side of the desk was a prized poster of the legendary diva, Maria Callas, playing the role of Floria Tosca in the 1964 Zeffirelli production at London's Covent Garden. Browning had acquired it at a garage sale for $1.50 from someone sadly ignorant of its historical significance. And tucked away on a corner of the desk, obscured by his computer terminal and the rising piles of detritus, was a five-by-seven framed portrait of his younger self with his arms wrapped self-consciously around the narrow waist of the flaxen-haired woman who was, very briefly, his wife.
Browning, who joined the Advocate just as its fortunes began to wane (a coincidence, he told himself, without conviction), had called this desk home since becoming travel editor four years earlier. The appointment had mystified him. Not only had Browning never travelled (except to Lake Placid, New York for a ski weekend six years ago, during which he had fractured his fibula on a beginner's slope), he actively disliked travel. His antipathy was fueled by an impressive collection of phobias. He was convinced that any airplane he boarded would plummet from the sky, suitcases he packed would be irretrievably lost, automobiles he rented would suffer brake failure on winding mountain roads, hotels he booked into would explode in flames while he slept.
But Norman Pugsley, the Advocate's irascible managing editor, had waved off Browning's objections. "Christ on a bicycle, man, we don't need some adventurer with itchy feet for this job," Pugsley had exclaimed. "How many of our readers do you think sail off to fuckin' Fiji for their vacation?”
Browning had said nothing. He could recognize a rhetorical question when he heard one. “Most don't get more than a few hundred miles down the highway,” Pugsley continued, “We need someone who can relate to them, not some globe-trotting dilettante.
"Besides," he had added triumphantly, "the travel section has no budget, so you couldn't go anywhere even if you wanted to. You're perfect for the job, Browning. All you have to do is sit here at your desk, check the wires and pick out a few wind-in-your-hair reads. Even you should be able to handle that."
Pugsley, who had been managing editor for a dozen years, had scant use for contemporary management theories. He favored authoritarian rule leavened by occasional moments of magnanimity. If Pugsley had decided that Browning would be travel editor, then that's what he would be. And Pugsley had so decided, more out of necessity than enthusiasm. The previous travel editor had stepped on an unexploded land mine while hiking in Sicily, reinforcing Browning's apprehension about the perils of travel. He survived, minus both legs and half his right arm, and had retired on a disability pension.
The Advocate's travel section was not a journalistic priority. Indeed, it was little more than a vehicle for advertising. But someone had to fill the space between the ads. Browning, whose modest talents wouldn't be missed by his fellow editors on the news desk, was deemed expendable. Like it or not, the travel editorship was his.
And, truth be told, Browning had slowly come to enjoy his job. It had several qualities that appealed to him. Because he had no staff and his superiors evinced little interest in what he did, contact with other humans, with its ever-present potential for trauma, was minimal. The section was published just once a week, so both the pace and the hours were congenial, a rarity in the frenetic world of daily journalism. And because the travel articles he selected and edited permitted him to "visit" exotic destinations without the fuss and bother of actual travel, Browning had developed an interest in faraway lands that surprised even him.
The arcane bits of knowledge he was accumulating were impressive, if of little practical value. He knew, for instance, that Portugal has about 61,000 kilometres of paved roads and 2.6 million registered cars; that the highest mean annual rainfall in Italy, about 60 inches, occurs in the province of Udine; that a popular form of entertainment in Burma is the pwe, a type of folk opera incorporating music and dance. There were times when, stuffed with this useless knowledge, Browning actually felt like something of a world traveler, a Columbus of the cerebellum, roaming the Earth from the security of his office chair (when available), peering into the magical maw of the computer screen that brought the world safely and expediently to him.
Browning lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of a nondescript high-rise on Laurier Avenue West, just blocks from the Advocate's offices. Its narrow kitchen, barely large enough to accommodate a two-person table, came with all the usual accoutrements of bachelorhood: a refrigerator containing half a litre of souring milk, three beers, a pizza slice, a jar of Jamaican pepper sauce, six processed cheese slices and some unidentifiable organic matter; a stove splattered with crusted tomato sauce; a microwave oven, flashing "pause" in fluorescent green; an electric frying pan, half-filled with water in a vain attempt to soak off the remnants of an ancient dinner; a toaster oven, at risk of being overwhelmed by crumbs.
A plastic cutting board, scored by sharp edges and breeding unimaginable bacteria, lay on the counter, next to a sink piled high with the week's unwashed dishes and a wok, still betraying evidence of the previous night's tofu-and-vegetable stir-fry. An odiferous garbage can, originally white, a bag of pretzels, largely consumed, an empty pizza box, size large, and a message board bearing a three-month old reminder to pick up the dry-cleaning completed the kitchen’s decor.
The living room was sparsely furnished with assembly-kit furniture from a local Scandinavian outlet. A grey hide-a-bed crouched uneasily in the box-like room, next to a low pine coffee table, a folding chair and a flat-screen TV. Opposite the hide-a-bed, red display lights flashing like the eyes of jungle cats caught in a searchlight, was one of the few pleasures of Browning's lackluster life: his audiophile-edition stereo system. Much of his disposable income had vanished into this and earlier systems in search of the best possible reproduction of the music embedded in the racks of vinyl albums and CDs that filled the living room’s remaining wall space. The collection was weighted heavily toward opera, including virtually every known work by Browning's obsession, La Divina, the great Maria Callas, whose musical output was displayed, shrine-like, in a special teak cabinet of its own.
The walls were bare except for a huge framed black-and-white portrait of Callas as Violetta in Visconti's 1955 production of La Traviata at La Scala. Callas’s courtesan, bare-shouldered in a black evening gown, had an expression of patient suffering on her face. Her hands were clasped at her throat, in a gesture mid-way between prayer and supplication, and the yearning on her face was palpable. Browning had spent hours gazing at this portrait, as Callas’s unforgettable voice filled the small room.
Browning's bedroom held another great attraction: his laptop, which connected him to the wider world with none of the risks that made his other contacts so unpredictably perilous. Not a day passed that he didn't spend hours trading ideas with strangers. It was as addictive as cocaine, as thrilling as a Callas high C.
And — this had been his most exciting discovery — the Internet linked him with people who shared his passion for Maria Callas. Browning had stumbled on the chat group by accident, astonished and gratified to find others who felt as he did about the great diva. Like a starving man at an all-you-can-eat buffet, he devoured their comments, analysis and arguments. To his surprise, he found that he possessed sounder knowledge of Callas’s life and career than many who contributed to the group. Emboldened, he entered the debate, politely but firmly correcting the ignorant and explaining his favorite Callas theories with quiet authority to his unseen colleagues.
When someone asserted that Giovanni Battista Meneghini, the Verona industrialist whom Callas married in 1949, was 25 years her senior, Browning pointed out that the true age discrepancy was just under 30 years. When another said Callas sang her first “Norma” in Buenos Aires in 1949, Browning informed all that she had first performed the role in the Teatro Communale in Florence the previous year, under the baton of the distinguished maestro, Tulio Sarafin. And when a third insisted that no recording existed of Callas's towering performances in Cherubini's Medea, Browning was able to report that she could be heard in the role on a hard-to-find 1957 recording on the Ricordi label.
To Browning, the Callas group was a delightful revelation, where all that mattered was the depth of your knowledge and the strength of your ideas. The cut of your clothes, the status of your profession or the thickness of your wallet, all so important elsewhere, were meaningless. It was also anarchic, male-dominated and alarmingly uncivil, but Browning saw only its liberating qualities. The Internet freed him from limiting preoccupations (penis size was irrelevant) and let him meet the world as an equal. Others in the Callas group quickly acknowledged his expertise and treated his opinions with deference. On the Internet, if nowhere else, Bliss Browning was respected.
It was a strange sensation for one conditioned to expect indifference or even contempt. It was disorienting, but Browning liked the novelty of the emotion. He would labour late into the night, sacrificing sleep, to trigger those pleasing feelings. He might even have said the Internet was better than sex, except that Bliss Browning could barely remember what sex felt like.
As usual, some degenerate on the Advocate's night shift had pinched his chair. Worse, the culprit (may he spend eternity standing in a chairless section of Hell, Browning thought bitterly) had hidden it so cunningly that he couldn’t find it. Ten minutes of peering at chair backs all over the newsroom had failed to locate it, and Browning's patience was wearing thin.
"Dammit Harry,'' he fumed to the slim, sardonic man at the next desk. "This chair theft problem is out of control. I spend more time looking for a place to park my butt than I do editing copy."
Harrison Howard, the Advocate's books editor and Browning's only close friend at the paper, glanced up from the pile of new releases that had arrived in the morning mail. He nodded sympathetically. "The death penalty for chair theft, I say. The electric chair would be appropriate."
A ringing telephone interrupted these meditations on judicial reform. Browning winced and picked up the receiver.
"Hi, is that Bliss? It's Judy. If you're looking for your chair, it's in Renata's office."
Renata Richter was the Advocate's erudite but erratic editor. Recruited by publisher Reid Hartley two years earlier from a high-profile post in academia in an effort to raise the foundering newspaper's tone, she drove her editors mad with a ceaseless stream of brilliantly impractical ideas. It was her idea, for example, to publish special monthly sections examining the historical context of present-day world problems. So far, bewildered Advocate readers had been subjected to 20-page supplements on 18th-century clan conflicts in Somalia, the colonial roots of economic crisis in Zaire, the Mogul era in India and philosophical thought in Czarist Russia. It was, Advocate editors thought, as removed from readers' interests as the price of turnips in Tashkent, but Richter would not be deterred.
"Christ, Harry," said Browning, dropping the receiver into its cradle, ''Richter's got my chair!"
"Whoop-whoop-whoop, danger, danger," sang out Howard. "Just make sure she doesn't spot you when you retrieve it. God knows what mad-assed scheme she might lay on you."
Browning laughed mirthlessly. Howard spoke from bitter experience. Soon after her arrival at the paper, Richter had called the books editor into her office and informed him his section was badly in need of an overhaul. Henceforth, she instructed, the weekly books section would be 16 pages instead of three, the reviewers all distinguished authors (preferably Nobel Prize winners), and the content heavily skewed toward literary fiction, poetry and obscure works of history. Popular books would be noted briefly or ignored altogether. These lunatic orders had actually been implemented until reader complaints and the ruinous cost of producing the section prompted Reid Hartley to intervene and restore sanity. So far, the travel section had escaped the editor's rarefied attentions, but Browning feared it was only a matter of time before her restless intellect would alight, however briefly, leaving carnage in its wake.
Warily, he approached the editor's office. Judy Rendell, Richter's executive secretary, waved him over. "Your chair's in her office," she said. "She needed it last night for a meeting on the supplement on Iran. Big, big crowd at that one. Standing room only." She gave him a conspiratorial smile. "Go on in and get it — she's not there."
With a grateful nod, Browning entered the august sanctum. Books filled one wall, a veritable library of deep thinking on philosophy, history, literature, economics and the arts. A couple of journalism tomes, recent additions to her collection, were wedged in among well-thumbed volumes of history. A laptop computer, loaded with all the latest software, perched on a credenza next to Richter's desk. (Rumor had it she was hopeless with technology and needed instruction every time she wanted to write a memo.)
Her desk was clear except for a foot-thick pile of mail and memos in her in-basket. Richter, whose relentless creativity was coupled with the attention span of a senile newt, was notorious for never reading anything in her in-basket, though she asked for memos incessantly from her underlings. Those who dealt with her regularly understood that the only way to get a decision was to confront her (quickly, before her mind wandered) and demand a judgment on the spot.
Browning spotted his delinquent chair. "Ah, there you are, you rascal," he scolded the innocent piece of furniture. "Come to papa."
Quickly, he began to roll the chair toward the newsroom, nearly bowling over someone striding obliviously into the office. It was, he realized with a heart-sinking start, Renata Richter.
"Sorry, sorry," she said, looking up. "Clumsy of me. Just not looking where I'm going." Richter focused on Browning's face.
"Oh, it's you." After two years as editor, Richter still didn't know Browning's name, though he seemed familiar. "You're in travel, aren't you?"
Browning nodded unhappily. "Bliss Browning," he offered.
"Of course, of course, Browning, Browning. Actually, I've been meaning to talk to you about something. Do you have 30 seconds?"
Like a man trudging to the gallows, Browning followed Richter back into her office.
"I've been thinking about our travel section," Richter began. "It's very good, of course — brilliant, actually. I'm a very big fan of your work. But I think with just a bit of fine-tuning, we could elevate it into something truly remarkable, something people would feel obliged to consult before making their travel plans."
Browning braced for the worst.
"You'll have your own ideas, of course, but if you'll permit me, I have a humble suggestion. I notice that you never write for the section. I think we should tap into your own travel experiences; I'm sure readers would enjoy your insights into the perils and rewards of travel in distant lands."
Startled by this bizarre proposal, Browning tried to speak. But Richter, heedless, carried on.
"I'm not sure what's in your travel budget this year, but I'd strongly suggest a visit to an African country — Botswana, perhaps. I was there a few years ago, and it's just taking off as a tourist destination. I'm sure you could pull together a 10-part series that would be of great interest to our readers. You might have to shuffle your budget priorities, but I'm sure it can be done. Anyway, let it marinate for a while and maybe you can lay out the modalities in a memo."
Richter smiled brightly at Browning, but he clearly had been dismissed. She picked up the phone. "Judy," she said. "Could you give me a hand? I need to write a memo to Reid, and you know me and computers."
Browning backed out of the office. He felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, scooped up by a freak tornado and deposited in an alien land. He slumped into his chair — the same chair whose wandering ways were responsible for this debacle. Next time, he thought, I'll stand.
"What are you going to do?" Harrison Howard tried to sound concerned, but he was unable to fully suppress his amusement. Though Advocate staffers lived in terror of Richter's attentions, they took malicious glee in the headaches she caused their colleagues. It was only because Browning was a friend that Howard's response was as sympathetic as it was.
"I don't know, Harry, I don't know. Jesus, Botswana!" Browning moaned. "I'll be gored to death by warthogs!"
"Maybe she'll forget about it," Howard suggested, though he didn't actually believe that she would. "You know what her attention span is like."
"You think so?" Browning asked, too eagerly. "Maybe my best strategy is just to lie low and hope she never thinks of me again. I mean, she managed to ignore me for nearly two years. It's not like I'm very visible around here."
Howard nodded. "That's what I'd do. Just stay out of her line of fire for a month or two, and it will be as if your nasty little encounter never happened.”
"Ah, there you are, Blissy boy." The florid face of Ryan Young, the Advocate's news editor, loomed over Browning's cringing form. "Afraid I've got a piss-cutter for you here," he chortled, not sounding sorry at all. A piss-cutter was the colloquial term for one of Reid Hartley's scathing memos, so named because a recipient once reported that his water dried to a trickle while reading the publisher's critique at a urinal. Given the name, it was oddly appropriate that Hartley's piss-cutters were invariably written on lurid yellow notepaper.
"The old man's in a fury because you ran an article on the weekend about antidotes to air-sickness right next to a big Air Canada ad. Air Canada complained, and now we have to run a make-good to get them off our backs. Cost us a cool five grand!"
With a smirk, Young handed Browning the publisher's rant. It was vintage Hartley, opening with a belligerent question — "What gormless nitwit do we have working on the travel section?" — and ending with a vow to personally end the offender’s career in journalism if he made a similar blunder again.
Browning rubbed his eyes morosely. What next, he thought. First the editor hatches a plan to kill me, now the publisher wants to fire me. "Do you think this is fair?" he asked Young. "I mean, do you think Air Canada has a legitimate gripe here? After all, the story was about ways of preventing air-sickness. You'd think an airline would welcome that."
"Well, that just shows what you know about the world of business, Blissy boy." Browning hated being called Blissy boy, a fact that Young, a natural bully, used to ruthless advantage. "D'ya think airlines want us to remind people they might puke if they fly? No fuckin' way they do. I don't blame them for being upset, a story like that right next to their nice, expensive ad."
"This is all bullshit." Harrison Howard had been listening with growing agitation. "Are we supposed to let advertisers dictate what we can run in our newspaper now?"
Young fixed a rheumy eye on the books editor. "First of all, Harry, we're not talking about the newspaper, just the travel section, which is practically an advertising supplement anyway. Second, those advertisers you're so pleased to scorn pay your salary and mine, so yes, you're damn right we listen to them."
Browning and Howard lapsed into sullen silence. "I want a memo from you by 3 p.m., Blissy boy, explaining exactly how this cluster-fuck happened and outlining how you’ll ensure it never happens again." Young glanced at his watch and yawned. "Damn near time for lunch. Couple of brewskies will go down well today, I think." He shuffled off in the general direction of Sassy's Bar and Grill, the newsroom's favourite watering hole.
"Charming as usual," Howard said sourly. Browning grimaced. "Goddamn, Harry, this has been one pisser of a day. And it's not even noon yet."
He raised his eyes toward the newsroom's stained ceiling tiles. "Oh Lord," he intoned, "why have you forsaken me?'' But except for a snort of laughter from Howard, there was no answer. If the Lord knew, he wasn't telling.
That evening, Bliss Browning hunched over his laptop, seeking solace after the bruising events of the day from the like-minded in the Maria Callas newsgroup. From the stereo, Callas's fluid voice glided over the notes of one of his favorite arias, the famous "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma, a role that Callas performed more than any other in her repertoire. Norma tells the story of a Druid High Priestess who willingly mounts a funeral pyre to save her unfaithful Roman lover, only to have him, moved by her sacrifice, join her in the flames. It was, Callas had confided to interviewers not long before her death in 1977, the opera character most like herself. As he scanned the latest entries, Browning was distressed to find a posting that attacked Callas's voice for "tonal deficiencies" and insisted that her fame owed more to her extravagant personal life than her musical gifts. Browning had heard the criticism before and had little patience for it.
Typing with concentrated fury, he composed his reply. "What you don't seem to grasp is that Callas was much more than just opera singer. She was a once-in-a-generation genius who redefined her entire art during her all-too-short lifetime. Consider her achievements: she almost single-handedly revitalized and expanded the bel canto repertoire, giving instant credibility to previously undervalued operas by Bellini, Donizetti and Spontini; through her dramatic gestures and expressiveness, she married dramatic acting to music, and so rescued a moribund genre from its own stifling conventions; she inspired Visconti and Zeffirelli, whose own directing genius raised operatic productions to a new level. No diva, before or since, has mastered so many roles so quickly. No diva ever demanded more of herself or sought excellence with such single-minded force of will. No diva ever drove her voice, her most precious instrument, so mercilessly, and at such cost.
"Callas's voice may not have had the sterile beauty prized by purists, but it had a passion and power that won opera a huge new audience and revealed the full meaning of librettos that had long been dismissed as vacuous or silly. If the price of that passion and commitment was an occasional unsteady note, surely that was little enough for such genius. Even now, nearly three decades after her death, Callas's voice can move me to tears; the few films that survive of her performances only hint at the grandeur of Callas on the stage. If you cannot grasp her importance to the art that you claim to appreciate, then I beg you to turn your attention to heavy metal, country music or some other genre more suited to your coarse sensibility."
Browning felt a pang of guilt at this uncharacteristically harsh last sentence. But his irritation with the Callas critic, coupled with the stresses of the day just passed, had shortened his fuse. He posted the message with a flourish of key strokes.
He wandered into the kitchen and cracked a beer. When I finish this, he thought, I'll sign off for the night. He’d been spending far too much late-night time online recently, and fatigue was dulling his judgment and fraying his nerves.
Browning took a long pull from the slender-necked bottle and, wandering back to his computer, called up the Callas newsgroup to double-check his posting. To his surprise, he saw that it had already attracted a reply. It must be someone objecting to my flame, he thought, regretting anew the intemperate tone of his missive. Tentatively, he opened the file.
"My dear Browning," it began. "I've been reading your contributions to this newsgroup for some time now, and it's clear that when it comes to Callas, you are what they call a True Believer. You know her work well and you defend her artistry with passion. She was, as you say, a genius of her art. But this is commonplace wisdom; many people, some of them far greater authorities on opera than yourself, have said as much.
"I'm looking for evidence that you understand her as a woman, or even as a human being. Granted, she was complex, her motives often hard to fathom, her psychology elusive. But if you really want to know Callas, you have to get past the public persona, past La Divina, to the real, flesh-and-blood woman who created these legends.
“By that, I don't mean merely the temperamental-diva image that Callas acquired in life, which has grown even more exaggerated in death. I mean truly understanding the woman who transformed herself from an overstuffed blimp into a slender beauty almost overnight; who sang to German and Italian soldiers as a teenager to help her family survive in occupied Athens, then, as a woman, cut off her mother and sister without a word; who married a man her father's age; who, while still married to this father-figure, fell in love with Aristotle Onassis, and remained in love with him even after he jilted her in favour of Jacqueline Kennedy; a woman who won the world's adulation, but couldn't win the only man she ever loved.
“What made her what she was? Do you know? Do you care? Or do you only care about her artistry, the virtuosity of her voice, how she could break your heart with a gesture? These things are wondrous, to be sure, but they are not real life. They are not Callas. Would you want people to judge you solely by the travel section you edit? Of course not; that is but one facet of your existence. No more would Callas want to be understood only through her music. A voice, even a great voice, is not a person. It's not even tangible, like an earlobe or a finger. I get tired of people knowing Callas only through her voice; it is so . . . incomplete.
“So, my dear Browning, my question to you is this: Are you ready to really know Callas? Are you ready to know her like nobody else alive today? I ask you alone this question because I believe you can handle the answers. I believe that you see qualities in Callas that inspire you, that make you struggle to be better. But understand that saying yes carries a price. You may question your own sanity; it's certain that others will. I will expect you to undertake difficult and, for you, terrifying tasks. The rewards for this are uncertain — there may be none. I know all this will seem strange to you. You needn't answer right away. I'll give you two days to think about it, and then you must reply. I have faith in you, my dear Browning. I hope you can find as much faith in me."
To Browning's consternation, this extraordinary missive was signed: Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos (Maria Callas).
We hope you enjoyed this sneak peek of
A LIFE OF BLISS by DON BUTLER.
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