I’m reading a book which I recommend called “Clever Girl” by Tessa Hadley about a clever girl who keeps making stupid choices about men. It made me think of myself, as good books usually do, and how I fell for a man at eighteen.
A boy of Russian origin who was not much older than I was, I met him in Rome where my mother had rented a ground floor apartment one summer at the time of the Olympic Games. I remember him ringing the doorbell to the house and standing there before the high iron gate in the shadows, his white shirt sleeves turned up to his elbows. He was tall and skinny with high cheekbones and slanting eyes.
But what interested me, unlike the young girl in Tessa Hadley’ s book, was not so much his looks but his intellect ( though she too likes the fact the boy is reading Becket) . Yet when I look at photos of my Russian as a young man he was very good looking, slim- hipped with something of the cowboy in his stance in an old photo I found of him standing in a narrow street in Lisbon. I am already pregnant at this point( Was this what he had in mind? The rich girl who would support his life style? Or was he really in love as he seemed to me?) He is smiling with his big baby mouth and slanting Russian eyes. Ironically and surely oddly at eighteen what interested me was his conversation, his cleverness, the fact that he, too, unlike my poor mother who never got beyond “Jane Eyre” had read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
I remember him saying, in his arrogant adolescent way, turning to me in his MG and accidentally putting his elbow in my eye, “I prefer Russian literature to French.” I wept from the blow to the eye and from his cleverness. He drove a white M.G. and lived in an apartment on Park Avenue despite their limited funds. He had no money but had always lived like a spoiled boy going to the best schools in Europe, le Rosay, and then on to Yale.
He was much better educated than I was, or so it seemed to me, though I doubt he had read all that much Russian or French literature at nineteen, but he also turned out to be an unfaithful husband just as his Russian father had been.
Yet I was drawn to him because he was so different from the people around me, from my mother and her friends. He talked not of diets or clothes but of books and the meaning of life, all the things which seemed so interesting to me. When we divorced, he very kindly sent me back my love letters to him. He had kept them all. He is a sentimental man and always remembers birthdays and Christmas. I had not kept his letters.
Still my love letters amazed me. They were hardly love letters at all. They were all about the meaning of life! Obviously, I should have been in school and not making babies as the girl does in Tessa Hadley’s “Clever Girl.” Certainly the pill has been a great invention for women !
Yet women continue to make these mistakes. Was it low self esteem that made me choose a man who would hurt me or just bad luck. And why was I able later in life to find a man who was both physically attractive to me and at the same time intellectually interesting?
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.