If dreaming serves less as a way to fulfil our desires but rather as a source of knowledge,
then “dreams would not only be the royal road to the unconscious but, what is more,
the royal road to knowing and understanding meaning itself”.
What is it that keeps me here in this place, where night after night my sleep is broken by an inexplicable scuttling noise, as if of a thousand tiny feet scampering across the room. Animals? No, I would have found them by now. The state of this room serves as proof as to how thoroughly I have searched for them. And in any case, what animal could ever produce such a revolting smell? Worse than the stench of a corpse! This baffling creature, certain of remaining undiscovered by me, comes and goes at will – just as now, now that it has finally fallen silent. Dawn is breaking and I can no longer hear it. As always at this hour, I tend to assume that the sound is merely a product of my jangled nerves, a figment of my imagination!
In any event, all I have done until now is try to find out what exactly it is. But now I think it may be more important and more helpful to write down the circumstances that have led to my current situation, to this agonising sensation I cannot put a name to, a painful, deap-seated sorrow that paralyses me, preventing me from leaving this place. Strictly speaking, I should have begun writing this straight away, or at least taken notes, for even after a relatively brief period of time there is a risk of the details becoming lost and imagination taking their place. But I was as if bewitched, concerned only with pursuing the matter at hand, in blindly following my longings. But in attempting to draw the future into the present and push the present back into the past, I have only made things worse. I am more helpless now than ever before.
Like a heavy sack, I drag myself to the desk. Captain Monnier's logbook lies open before me. I intend to begin writing just where he left off. The more I read his last entry over and over again, the more I think it must be about events that are connected not only to the sea, the weather and the ship. And though it may sound mad, I even think it may have something to do with me. In what way, I cannot be sure. This may not become clear until I have reached the end of my report.
If I am successful, I do not know what will happen to me.
My strange story begins far, far away, at a hotel high up on the Vomero. Presumably, no, certainly, there would be nothing to relate had I been able to move into the single room I had booked. For reasons that are of no further interest, I was unexpectedly given the wedding suite at no extra cost. A real luxury for a freelance book restorer such as myself! There is no need for me to describe my delight. How was I ever to suspect that this unexpected stroke of luck would turn out to be the exact opposite. At this point it would seem to make sense to include some information about myself, although I do not expect anyone else to ever read these notes. One more reason why I need not attempt to adopt a style that is any less old-fashioned than I am myself.
My name is Axel Gennaro Menzel. Axel after the writer Axel Munthe, in whose illustrious garden my parents first met, Gennaro after my Italian great-grandfather, the only relative my mother ever mentioned and Menzel after my German father, whom she barely mentioned at all and who shortly after my birth put the span of an entire ocean between us. I seem to be, as they say, the result of both an accident and the magic of Anacapri. Not until after mother's death was I to find out what happened exactly and why she chose to remain in Germany. She wrote me a long letter, attempting to explain everything and also confiding things to me that would have better remained hidden forever. But she said not a single word as to why she took an overdose. She simply did it, shortly before Christmas. Three months later, my wife left me as well, more or less. She has moved into her old flat on the other side of the street.
Billa and I have known each other for a long time, over ten years. She had already fallen in love with me at the age of thirteen, which I, older than she, blind, shy, and awkward, was not aware of until much later. It was thanks to her persistence that we were married three years ago. I thought her love would transform me, just enough for me to be able to be content with my life as far as was possible. This did indeed seem to be the case, up until my mother's dreadful deed. I had not realised or not wanted to realise how unhappy she truly was. Of course, Billa tried everything in her power to help me, but the harder she tried, the more unpleasant I was to her. I would insult, wound and humiliate her at the slightest pretext, as if she were my worst enemy. She finally could bear it no longer and moved out, saying a period of separation would do us both good. My father had made the same claim and then never returned. Fortunately, I had not given way to her wish for a child. But my wife is not in the least interested in getting divorced. She still loves me, certainly more than I love her. Perhaps I should do as Billa suggests and fall in love with someone less invisible. Billa may be many things, but Melusine she is not.
Nor do I have very many friends. I would even go so far as to say that I do not need even the few that I have. The presence of another person paralyses my thoughts, my speech, even my movements, which become slower and somehow less coordinated. Knowing I am not showing myself in my best light makes me even more tense until I am barely able to make a single witty remark, much less attract the attention of a beautiful woman. An invitation to dinner or a party makes me so uneasy that I am unable to sleep or work properly for a long time beforehand.
The need to travel to Italy threw me into utter confusion. But a very good client had asked me for a favour: I was to examine and possibly acquire a number of books in the possession of an old friend, a certain Dr. Raven, in order to restore one or two of them at a later date. Billa thought that the change would do me good - but change and unfamiliar places frighten me, Billa ought to be aware of that. On the other hand, I couldn't afford to turn down such a lucrative assignment - so she was right about that. And so I was more or less obliged to accept, but I did not plan on staying for more than three days. The fact that I delayed my departure is, as I have said before, a consequence of the unforeseen room change and of what I found inside the room. More on this later.
I shall attempt to proceed in chronological order, even if the events I will be relating may easily be arranged in the wrong order, confused or even come across as implausible. The more reason for me to try not to give in to my tendency to exaggerate, or to allow my sense of shame to make me forget embarassing events. I only hope I may succeed. My largest problem is time, understandably enough when one considers how much has happened since then. I do recall that flying to Italy on a Tuesday. However, I no longer remember how long ago that was. But this inaccurary is of but little account.
Upon arriving in Rome, I took the train to Naples. In order to save money, I didn't take a taxi but managed to get the right train and bus up to San Martino, where my hotel was. This, incidentally, was also the district where my mother had grown up. It was a long and tedious journey. I was all the more delighted over my unexpectedly luxurious quarters. Instead of the usual shabby single room with a shower, I was given two rooms with a large bathroom. There was even a terrace, offering a unique panoramic view. In the distance I could make out the sea and Mount Vesuvius and on my right, the grounds of a large park, the Villa Floridiana. The green lungs of Vomero. I was only familiar with this side of the city from postcards. When my great-grandfather was still alive, we spent every Christmas at his house. The few memories I have of this - I was seven years old when he died - are of a silent house with a garden closed in by high walls, which I was never allowed to leave.
But now I was gazing upon a seemingly limitless expanse, doused in light, colour and the scents of an early summer, that crept under my clothes and touched me like a warm body. Not only my skin seemed to awaken. For the first time in ages I could feel a joyful longing and the prickling of a restlessness that drove me, contrary to my usual habits, into the streets. I generally do not enjoy walking about in cosmopolitan cities. They are so replete with beauty and elegance that they only make me more aware of my own mediocrity. My looks, my clothes, even my gait fill me with distaste. I am disconcerted by my own bodily presence, just as when looking at photographs of myself. All the more remarkable that I spent the entire afternoon, up until my appointment, walking about outside. But at exactly five o'clock I was in the Via Scarlatti, standing before an old palazzo, eight stories high and built in the Liberty style, which looked as if it had gradually grown and sprawled in all directions. A caretaker, dressed like a porter of a grand hotel, asked me whom I wished to speak to. Standing in between us was an imposing wrought iron gate, wide and high enough for the coaches of bygone times, or even a double-decker bus to pass through quite comfortably.
I introduced myself and, suppressing my accent as far as possible, said:
"Dr. Raven is expecting me.". Despite all my mother's efforts, I do not speak Italian quite as well as German. Only after the man had made enquiries by telephone was I admitted. He accompanied me to one of those open lifts constructed at a later date, which looked like a magnificent cage, and sent me up to the top floor. In these surroundings it would not have surprised me if Dr. Raven's door had been opened by a footman in livery. But it was Dr. Raven himself who opened it. In the dim light of the windowless hallway I first took him to be a man of about my own age, around forty.
"Mr. Menzel?" He offered me his hand straight away. Its grip was slightly too soft, just as mine was. Realising this and repelled by it, I tried to tighten my grip. But he withdrew his hand from mine in an unpleasantly swift movement.
"Did you have a good journey?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Let's go straight to the library. If you wouldn't mind following me."
Only then did I realise that he was much older, probably over sixty, but his slim build and conspicuously dark hair made him look younger. We were in a room with a fresoced ceiling, antique bookcases and a long narrow table running down the middle of it, on which lay the books in question. My gaze merely brushed over them, completely caught up by something else, an oil painting that covered almost the entire wall, with a baroque frame that reminded me of a museum piece. Never before had I seen anything so vital and thrilling!. In the midst of flickering rays of colour, hundreds of women resembling puppi, the tiny figures in Piranesis Carceri, walked across innumerable staircases and corridors that reached upwards in a fragile entangled web until they were lost to the eye. The material of their dresses, eighteenth century, to judge from the style, was so perfectly executed that I had the impression that if I reached out my hand, I would feel their delicate muslin, airy gauze, heavy velvet, Atlas silk and Sicilian brocade under my touch. Dr. Raven excused himself. Stepping closer to the painting, I carefully scrutinised each woman. Oddly enough, they all had their backs turned to the viewer, all but one, barely taller than a portrait miniature, clad in blazing white lace, wearing a striking wreath of flowers in her hair and indescribably beautiful.
So preoccupied with the painting was I, that I did not hear Dr. Raven return and his words: "Unusual, isn't it?" made me flinch. He was standing right behind me. I agreed with him and asked him who it was by. He took a walking stick from a stand and used it to point to the central figure with the sole recognisable face.
"It's by her, Katinka, a woman as beautiful as one of Boticelli's goddesses. Do you see the resemblance?"
"I do. It is remarkable."
"It was, Mr. Menzel, it was. Sadly, she will never look like that again. A jealous goddess made sure of that."
"What do you mean?"
"Being half Neapolitan, you probably know the legend of Megaride."
"You mean the story of the siren Parthenope and the the founding of Naples?"
"No, the one about Lucullo who bought the peninsula of Megaride and lived there with a woman of such beauty, even the staunchest of men were powerless before her. More cruel than a siren and more beguiling than the goddess of love herself, Servilia seduced every man and then laughed at them all. Of course, Venus could not allow this. Mad with jealousy, she commanded one of her lovers to kill her rival. And so Neptune sent a terrible storm to swallow up the woman and all of Megaride."
Dr. Raven paused and, wanting to know what had happened to Servilia's husband, I asked: "And Lucullo?"
"Lucullo? He was in his villa near Frascati. Upon hearing of his wife's death, he ate and drank to the health and honour of the gods."
"Is that all?"
Dr. Raven was still gazing at the painting. As I was naturally more curious about the painter than about the legend, I asked him what had happened to her. His answer, his wavering, expressionless gaze, his lack of sympathy and choice of words all made me shudder. "A stupid accident has damaged her forever!"
I stammered an apology, as if I had been lacking in tact and avoided looking into his eyes from then on. Even after such a short time I was hoping not to have to get to know this man any better. He, on the other hand, did not seem to be in any hurry to get rid of me. Instead of showing me the books, he walked about the room, still holding the stick, whose striking ivory handle depicted a woman with the body of a snake, and spoke of foreign languages and far-off countries. He could speak eight languages perfectly, of which he was very proud and which he constantly demonstrated to me. I could keep up with him in four of them at any rate, but this did not impress him at all, as these four were the most common. Not until evening fell did he stop talking and allow me to finally choose twenty books which he promised to send to Germany for me, so as to spare me from having to carry them in my luggage. Before leaving, I asked him to recommend a good pizzeria. He named a restaurant not far from my hotel.