Rossetti's obsession

Extract from the novel Rossetti's Obsession, Center for Basque Studies, Reno, 2005. Translated from Basque by Madalen Saizarbitoria. Originally published as Rossetti-ren obsesioa, Erein, 2001.

I put the manuscript back in the envelope in which it had been sent and lingered at the window, staring out at the gray foam-specked sea, which seemed enraged under the weight of the black sky. This sight alone would have been enough to make the feeling of wetness cut straight to my bones, but the house itself was also very damp from having stood empty so long. To make matters worse, I hadn't been able to get the heating to work, despite several attempts. However, I knew it was the thought of never seeing Victoria again that caused me to feel ill at ease and made me shiver on that harsh autumn morning.

"We'll meet again" she said before leaving and added, "some day", after a short pause. The phrase is crystal clear to anybody who wants to understand it, especially as it was I who, only a moment before, had somewhat awkwardly asked her, "I hope we'll meet again?" Her reply might have been, "Sure, whenever you're free," or at least an indefinite, "Any time," but in the event she only repeated, "We'll meet again" and to make matters worse, added, "Some day." It's true that she said it in a sweet tone of voice but that doesn't mean anything because Victoria is essentially unable to be rude – well, except when she calls Dante Gabriel Rossetti a wretch.

It was thus made very clear to me that she was trying to avoid another date, and that she was happy to leave the possibility of our meeting again entirely to chance. This perhaps explains why I didn't reply, "Okay, why don't we meet tomorrow, if you want" I didn't, since it would have left her with no way out.

I'm sure that if we ever happened to meet again, we'd be able to have a drink or a cup of coffee together and reminisce about our walks in London, and frankly that's almost the worst thing, that she didn't even seem angry, hurt or offended. In other words, she didn't care enough about me to feel resentful and this makes it all the more painful; I've disappointed her, like many others before me, I suppose, and she just pities me.

It was partly due to bad luck that our burgeoning relationship ended, but essentially I'm the one to blame. Now that it's all over and I know I've lost her forever, I see all the more clearly how deeply in love with her I was, and that she must have felt something for me too; of this I'm sure. In retrospect I realize that I should have shown her more clearly how I felt, that I should have said, quite simply, "I think I'm in love with you, Victoria." She would have said something in response, I don't know what, to show that she also cared for me. Maybe she would have said something like, "I also have feelings for you," in that expression women often use when they want to let us know they're not completely indifferent toward us; and then we would have gone on to talk about seeing each other again, and the landscape I now behold, a sky aching under the weight of black clouds, spat at by the gray sea, wouldn't have the power to upset me, because we would already have arranged to meet again somewhere, probably in San Sebastian, to have dinner together at the Urepel, a restaurant overlooking the Urumea river.

Now, after all that has happened, it's easy to say with hindsight that anything would have been better than what I actually did. But at the time I was so scared of disappointing her by saying or doing the wrong thing that I felt the need for a tried-and-tested formula to win her affection. What I needed was something more convincing and above all more original than, "I think I'm in love with you."

Actually, I was tempted more than once, while we walked around London, to interrupt her and tell her just that, but I was afraid that such a remark would end it all, would even offend her by revealing how I had misjudged her friendliness toward me. This tendency of us men to want to go beyond the mere platonic friendship women are often satisfied with is something they find particularly annoying; they feel betrayed when they find out how badly we misinterpret their friendly affection, and all too often this brings an end to the very friendship we want to transcend.

This was why I decided against openly showing her my feelings. I didn't want to put our fledgling, fragile relationship at risk. However, I see clearly now that the worst thing she could have done had I told her something like, "I think I'm in love with you" would be to laugh it off and say, "Come on, it's only your imagination" or, "You don't even know me," or even something more philosophical, such as, "You don't really love me, you just want to love me."

Any decision would have been better than the one I ended up making. It's all so clear now in view of the way things turned out. Nevertheless, without wishing to sound entirely blameless, I want to say that I had my reasons for doing what I did. I thought it would be more convenient for me to write to her rather than tell her what I wanted to say, since, for anyone with any literary skills whatsoever, it's easier to convey such things in writing. Firstly because it helps you avoid a face-to-face encounter, but more importantly because it lets you hide your true intentions behind a literary faįade, so that if things don't go as planned you can always say it was only words, mere fiction. This is why I believe writers, with some noble exceptions, are usually cowards. But in this case, trying to win over Victoria through writing seemed all the more justified, because a couple of years previously, in similar circumstances, it had proved extremely successful with Eugenia. At the time, at least, I wouldn't have thought it excessive to use the word "successful" to describe the effect my note had on her, and it was natural to expect that what had worked with Eugenia would also work with Victoria, for they were alike in so many ways: apart from belonging to the same social class, they were both intelligent, educated women with an interest in literature. The main problem, however, was that I had almost completely forgotten the words I had used in my note to Eugenia, and that, precisely because I had forgotten them, I became obsessed with the note, or rather with the idea of sending Victoria the exact same note. A similar one wouldn't have done. I had gotten it firmly into my mind that it had to be the same text, word for word, so I tried everything to get it back. That's more or less what happened to put it briefly.

I suppose that to some extent this happens to everybody: you forget something that usually trips off your tongue, then become obsessed with calling it to mind. I for one have often found myself in this situation, especially since I started to use the computer to write, because, being a late arrival to the world of information technology, I easily lose parts of my documents in the unavoidable process of cutting and pasting. And usually on such occasions, whatever I've deleted – a simple line, a word, even the heading of a note "dear friend, just a word" – suddenly seems irreplaceable, as though it had been the result of a unique moment of inspiration.

In such situations I feel convinced that only the words that I've lost and the exact way they were strung together can adequately express my thoughts, and that if I don't remember them I won't be able to say or write a single word. Thus I become obsessed with retrieving them and can spend hours and days on end at the computer, wasting my time, calling all my computer-literate friends for help, because I'm incapable of recalling exactly the line, paragraph or fragment I've lost. And it has to be the same text, word for word.

Of course, in the case of the note I'd written to Eugenia and wanted to use again with Victoria, a certain nostalgia for the lost word seems more understandable. For one thing, as I said before, I well remembered the effect the note had had on Eugenia, for it had suddenly filled her with a fiery passion for me, and this naturally made me all the more eager to recover it. Moreover, because I'd written the note by hand, I couldn't even entertain my obsession by frantically searching my hard disk for it, which made things even worse.

Sedano, a psychoanalyst by profession and a friend and colleague of sorts, describes me as an "obsessive neurotic." According to him, this isn't a condition one is born with (I myself prefer to call it a condition rather than an illness), but one that usually develops early in life. Though he's probably right, I don't think that as a child I resembled such lascivious children as, for example, Freud's Rat Man, who got erections at the tender age of four. However, what I can assure you, for I do have extensive knowledge in this area, is that obsessive neurosis is certainly not a psychological trait that improves with age.

In the carefree days of youth you share your ideas and plans with others without giving it a second thought. You don't feel the need to selfishly keep every idea to yourself as if it were patent-pending, probably because you're more prolific, as well as more self-confident, in the sense that when you lose a good idea you feel you can easily come up with a better one. In fact you feel like an inexhaustible source of ideas. Poems seem almost to gush from your mind – or your heart, for I'm not sure where poems are generated. Enough, in any case, to enable you to send love letters to all the girls you fall for. Moreover, when we're young we're also less inhibited about copying from poetry anthologies: we have an anything-goes attitude.

Anyway, what's certainly true is that when I was young I wouldn't have become so obsessed with a lost text, because I could write a new one just like that, or fall back on a line that I particularly liked. "I opened a window to the sea" was an opening line I frequently used. I certainly wouldn't have lost any sleep over it, and this is precisely the attitude Rossetti himself should have taken, but the poor wretch got it into his mind that his poems were terribly sublime, and became obsessed with recovering them. Something similar happened to me.

It was something that Victoria couldn't understand: the selfishness of a creative mind, its vanity. "People like that would rather see an entire Gothic cathedral demolished than one line of their work erased," I remember her saying. Her voice, usually so sweet, became tense whenever she repeated what a wretch Rossetti was. And she never seemed to be joking; in fact, whenever she brought the matter up she was very serious, deadly serious.

I haven't always been like this. My literary work – if it can be so called, for apart from some commissioned work, I've only published one novel, Farewell, Sadness, an early work whose title reflects the mood in which I wrote it – my literary production, I say, has never really obsessed me. I mean that I'm not one of those people who go around brooding on the brilliance of their silly ideas and writing them down on scraps of paper.

Š Rossetti-ren obsesioa: Erein