by Christopher Priest
Extract from 'Sailing to Byzantium,' from W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems, reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., copyright 1928 by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., renewed 1956 by Georgie Yeats; and of M. B.
Yeats, Anne Yeats, and Macmillan London Ltd.
Copyright 1981 Christopher Priest
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the permission of Charles Scribner's Sons.
To M.L. and L.M.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
W. B. YEATS
'Sailing to Byzantium'
This much I know for sure:
My name is Peter Sinclair, I am English and I am, or I was, twenty-nine years old. Already there is an uncertainty, and my sureness recedes. Age is a variable; I am no longer twenty-nine.
I once thought that the emphatic nature of words ensured truth. If I could find the right words, then with the proper will I could by assertion write all that was true. I have since learned that words are only as valid as the mind that chooses them, so that of essence all prose is a form of deception. To choose too carefully is to become pedantic, closing the imagination to wider visions, yet to err the other way is to invite anarchy into one's mind. If I am to reveal myself then I prefer to do so by my choices, rather than by my accidents. Some might say that such accidents are the product of the unconscious mind, and thus inherently interesting, but as I write this I am warned by what is to follow. Much is unclear. At this outset I need that tedious quality of pedanticism. I have to choose my words with care.
I want to be sure.
Therefore, I shall begin again. In the summer of 1976, the year Edwin Miller lent me his cottage, I was twenty-nine years old.
I can be as certain of this as I am of my name, because they are both from independent sources. One is the gift of parents, the other the product of the calendar. Neither can be disputed.
In the spring of that year, while still twenty-eight, I came to a turning-point in my life. It amounted to a run of bad luck, caused by a number of external events over which I had little or no control. These misfortunes were all independent of each other, yet because they all came together in the space of a few weeks it seemed as if they were part of some terrible conspiracy against me.
In the first place, my father died. It was an unexpected and premature death, of an undetected cerebral aneurysm. I had a good relationship with him, simultaneously intimate and distant; after the death of our mother some twelve years earlier, my sister Felicity and I had been united with him at an age when most adolescents are resisting their parents. Within two or three years, partly because I went away to university, and partly because Felicity and I became alienated from each other, this closeness had been broken. The three of us had for several years lived in different parts of the country, and were together only rarely. Even so, the memories of that short period in my teens lent an unspoken bond between my father and me, and we both valued it.
He died solvent but not rich. He also died intestate, which meant that I had to be involved in a number of tedious meetings with his solicitor. At the end of it all, Felicity and I each received half of his money. It was not large enough to make much difference to either of us, but in my case it was sufficient to cushion me from some of