Hadrian behaves as if you inhabit the same piece of mental earth as the protagonist -- even if you don't, it address you as if you do -- if it treats you like this firmly enough, if it only treats you in this way, if it hammers you with persuasive details, then you will be bent into the right shape -- this is how it seems to think -- if it never lets you have a crack to escape through -- if it never stops squeezing -- if it never shows weakness -- then it will win -- if it does not let you speculate ambiguously -- if it will not let you disagree or laugh -- if it only ever shows approval of its protagonist -- if it only ever seems repulsed by its villains -- "then," it seems to say, "I will triumph."
The protagonist represents this point of view distilled into a person. He is the book itself, he is the book's idea of itself replicated inside itself like a reflection in a mirror, a picture of the author beaming through the medium of prose and shining, smaller, in colour, against a white panel -- he is a proudly stubborn aesthete in a dirty world, retrograde, austere, rebellious, unbending, his taste "exquisite" --
At the upper edge of the board a number of Publishers' Dummies reposed, having the outward similitude of six-shilling novels: but he had filled their pages with his archaic handwriting --
-- two lines later he is quoting Sophocles in Greek, and so the information piles up, the room is graced with "sixteen exquisite Greek intagli" and "a curious Greco-Italian seal shewing St George as a winged-footed Persys," "four tiny ingots of pure copper," and you notice that the scale of the treasures is important here, diminutive items preferred ("tiny ingots"), objects you can only admire if you're being rewarded with a view at close range, "a miniature in a closed morocco case," smallness stressing the character's privacy, poverty, and modesty, "a small low armchair," "a small fire," the items listed and lined up on display by the exactness of a detail that guides the reader's inner eye to one spot, "done on the back of an Admiralty chart," the author never admitting that this heap of little delicates is getting ridiculously large; you either respect it or you're out.
"Cultivate the art of saying No," says the protagonist to himself because he is afraid he is too nice. The book erects boundaries as it goes, such is its temperament, it creates and discovers them; if it hates then it wants you to hate, if it loves then it wants you to love. If you are not its kind of person then it does not want you. "It does not want me," I thought. Rolfe does not try to persuade, he tries to obliterate, banish, or crush.
"He behaves as though I am somehow him," I thought, "and as though I am reading this book through his own brain, so that all he has to do is use a word like "low" or "conventional" or "socialist" and his disgust will be transferred instantly into my veins, he treats his words as if they are hypodermic needles."
Here was the spoor of a time that had departed. I was supposed to know. It was supposed to be in the air. I was supposed to be viscerally revolted by pre-Revolutionary Russian Communism. The book was published in 1903. I feel a wall. The book is on the other side. There was no wall, now there is a wall. It wants ascetic coolness and visceral hating emotion together. A character speaks with a slang accent. I am supposed to think that he is morally squalid not only because he has those thoughts but because he expresses them in that voice. The voice is coarse and coarseness is vile. Rolfe is so repelled he's spitting. Through no other route may I emphathise with this book. But I am so distant from that time and place that I couldn't sacrifice myself like that even if I wanted to. I am blocked even from the pyre. The author is suffused with disdain. I believe that I can read his mind that far. I can describe the shape of his hatred by borrowing the words that he uses. He hates people who bark, he hates people who drop an h, he hates people who don't respect the monarchy. But my description is pure word-borrowing. I am only making a quick skin for that hatred so that I can tell you, "He hates."
Thomas Bernhard's books call people pigs and philistines but they're not as smug as Hadrian -- they're not martyred saints -- they don't insist so coldly and soothingly on their own holy infallibility -- and I get along with them better -- their protagonists who'd like to scratch off their own faces -- Rolfe likes his own face intact and noble -- the more petty he is, with his hatred of accents or ugliness, the more he wants his nobility -- I have learnt something here, I thought --