(or Time to be self obsessed)
Coming in through the doorway you pass through a narrow passage (closet on your right, bathroom on your left) to enter into the room proper. As you walk in, you find, immediately on your left, a small bookcase of blonde wood - 4 feet high and 2 feet wide. Careful scrutiny of this bookcase will show that it contains nothing but poetry: the top shelf is taken up by 'classics' (Virgil, Camoes, Dante) and the 'English' poets (Keats, Donne, Larkin, etc) while the second shelf contains American poetry. The third shelf from the top houses translations - containing, in order, poetry translated from Russian, Italian, Portugese, French, German, Greek, Polish, Spanish, Chinese, Persian and Urdu. The bottom shelf contains periodicals. These divisions are not rigid however. Lack of space and the owner's natural laziness mean that Dickinson is squeezed between Marvell and Yeats, while Walcott, though writing in English, has ended up between Neruda and Li Po.
Above this bookcase, on the wall, a large poster (from an exhibition at the Met) of Van Gogh's Thatched Huts at Cordeville Auvers. A flood of spring greenery flooding the landscape, pouring like a cataract from the horizon, down to where the lemon-yellow road yawns in a lazy triangle. Walls and fences are foreshortened, overwhelmed, the cottages themselves seem to grow out of the living land, spontaneous, organic, their roofs one with the scenery. Above these roofs trees swirl like billows of dark green smoke, and higher up still the sky is a whirling mass of azure and cobalt, punctuated by a white sinkhole of a sun into which the colour slowly drains. This is landscape as only Van Gogh could paint it, a quiet country scene revealed in all its teeming energy.
Standing in the centre of the room and turning your eyes clockwise from this painting, you come to two bookshelves on the left hand side wall. These contain prose - fiction on the top shelf (split between novels on the right and short fiction on the left), non-fiction on the bottom (philosophy on the right, other stuff - myth, criticism, biography - on the left). There is a third bookshelf further along the wall, but this one is flimsy and has therefore been relegated to bearing only a few plays (Lorca, Ibsen, Sartre, Ionesco) and miscellaneous papers.
Between these two columns of bookshelves, there is, pinned to the wall, a small (8 by 12 inch) print of Degas' Dancer. In the background, three hazy figures emerge out of a wash of pastel and charcoal, more dervishes of motion than human beings. In the foreground, a fourth dancer, feet planted firmly on the floor, adjusts a bow behind her back. The scene itself suggests imminence, a sense of beauty waiting to happen. Degas sketches the outline of the figures themselves in clear charcoal, but uses no outline for their skirts, simply colouring them in with white and blue chalk and leaving their edges indistinct. The effect is at once ghostly and electric, at once starched and diffused. The sash that the main figure is tying around her waist sends a current of blue surging through the entire painting, so that an otherwise sepia piece is shot through and suffused with colour.
Above the unreliable bookshelf, a poster of Roy Lichtenstein's Kiss V.
The last painting on the left wall, down towards the far end, (occupying pride of place in the form of the only nail in the whole room to hang paintings on) is another Degas, this one in pure charcoal - Woman in a Bathtub. Inside the great white circle of the bathtub, the figure of a woman sits on a chair, leaning down to wash her own feet (we see her shoulders, the back of her head, and her hand rubbing away at her foot). This is beauty joined to awkwardness - you can feel the strain as the woman reaches all the way down to her toes, but the figure itself is perfectly balanced, graceful, a circle as complete in herself as the bathtub she is sitting in. This is a deeply private, even intimate moment, but it is a moment rescued from all possibility of observation, from all need of external reference. This is the lyricism of our everyday solitude. Richard Wilbur writes: "The grace is there, / But strain as well is plain to see. / Degas loved the two together: / Beauty joined to energy."
[The painting is special to me because it is the one painting I carry with me wherever I go. Originally a gift from my parents (obtained from an exhibition at NGMA in Delhi where the original was displayed), this solitary two-dimensional woman has been my constant companion ever since, adorning the walls of every room I have lived in for the past 7 years.]
The back wall of the room is taken up entirely by windows, so there is no place to hang a painting. On the floor, however, you will find a third Degas - this one a framed 30'' x 18'' reproduction of Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts. An explosion of orange announces the bursting forth of three figures - one with her back turned to the viewer, a second drinking a glass of water, a third making adjustments to her dress. As usual with Degas, you find yourself in the position of an unseen observer, a spy. None of these figures looks directly at you, they are clearly unaware of your presence, and uninhibited in their movements as a consequence. These paintings are more tenderly intimate than any explicit nude could ever hope to be, because they reveal not the nakedness of the body, but the nakedness of the self when it is not aware of being watched. Beauty, in Degas' world, is intensely human and entirely ephemeral. But more than figures themselves, Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts is notable for the energy of its pallette - the boiling ochre of the background, the flaring yellow of the skirts, with their pattern of delicate blue flowers, the wash of poppy-like crimson at their feet.
Moving on to the right hand side wall, we find, spreading horizontally over the bed, a large poster of Dali's Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire. A desert landscape. In the foreground, left, a woman sits at a table, facing away from the viewer, looking across to where, in a ruined building, the slave market is underway. The insubstantial, writhing figures of the slaves melt into the background, the transparency of their bodies merging with with the brown of wall and earth. Only the buyers and the traders are clearly defined, solid in their indifference. From within this mass of central figures, the bust of Voltaire appears and disappears. The table the woman is sitting at is covered with a cloth of lavish red, and two figures rest upon it - the first a chipped and broken base that props up Voltaire's illusory bust, the second a smooth open chalice, from which the dream-like figure of a couple embracing in despair rises. Far away in the distance, other figures populate the desert. The sense of perspective is tremendous, as is the feeling of sorrow that almost bleeds from the painting. Even without the clever illusion of Voltaire's bust this would be a mesmerising work, with it, the painting is an endless dream that deserves (and rewards) hours of contemplation.
But onward, onward. The last painting on the right hand side wall is Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) - a dizzying spiral of planes screaming into a trajectory of brazen gold. The ecstatic geometry of jazz.
Finally, on your left as you go out (on the same wall as the first Van Gogh, only on the other side of the passageway) a second, smaller Van Gogh. A tiny 8'' x 12'' print (the wall has space for nothing bigger) of Cypresses - that incredible vertical smoke-stack of a tree rising up into the heavens.
Looking around the room, it seems clear that the room has been recently cleaned and tidied, but that the occupant is not otherwise a habitually neat person. Already, the stray debris of living is starting to encroach upon the room's formal, contrived neatness. Magazines lie spilled about the foot of the bed, a backpack has been thrown carelessly in a corner, a red coffee mug with two swallows worth of coffee rest precariously on the carpet, waiting to be kicked over.
By the bed, a large floor lamp. As you watch, this lamp comes on suddenly, causing you to start back in surprise. Don't worry. It's just that the lamp has a loose connection - it switches on and off by itself (though a quick pat will usually make it come on again). This unlooked for spontaneity can be irksome - especially when one is sleeping next to the lamp - but over the time the person who lives here has learnt to adjust even to this disturbance, though it still causes him to have some strange dreams.
You look up at the ceiling and see the red light of the smoke detector winking at you. What secrets does it know about this room and its tenant? It's too late to find out now. You have to go. As you leave, a notice on the door reminds you not to use escalators in case of fire.