The Wife of the Lion

Hernán Díaz

Martha Malini’s death from respiratory failure was mentioned in several newspapers around the world. Her unique appearance—white hair down to the waist, ivory saris and suits, downcast eyes that seemed to regret the attention the rest of her body drew to itself—ensured that even the briefest reports came with a large picture. She could be seen giving talks, opening exhibitions, and launching books in every continent. Some of the pictures also featured Francis Towne, her late husband, who was the subject of the talks, the topic of the exhibitions, and the author of the books.

Having suffered from a slow but relentless form of sclerosis from his youth, Towne required constant care by his early fifties. Malini, thirty years his junior, became his assistant shortly after taking one of his classes at Columbia University. By the end of the semester, she was pushing his wheelchair around campus and along the river during long promenades. Soon they were living together. Despite his illness, Towne traveled often and wide to accept awards, receive honorary doctorates, and, until he lost his ability to speak, give lectures. Malini always traveled with him. Although they seemed to lead a happy life in the Upper East Side—and even though he received the best medical care available—shortly after his eighty-first birthday, Malini took Towne to a clinic in Montreux, where they got married two months before he died. She was his only heir and managed his literary estate with firmness. Aside from the occasional foreword to a new edition of her husband’s work, she never published anything of her own. And yet, her fame had grown steadily through the years so that when she died, about three decades after Towne, she was a modest international celebrity.

Most of Malini’s obituaries stayed close to these uncontested basic facts, adding words of praise for the zeal with which she had protected and promoted Towne’s work, a task to which she had given almost her entire life. But there were also critics who claimed that she had done great damage to the writer’s legacy by greedily giving every unpublished scribble to the press—juvenilia he abhorred, intimate papers, damning letters, and other documents that quite obviously tarnished his reputation. Other detractors pointed out that the only good thing about the critical editions that she oversaw was the exquisite cloth binding with gilded lettering. And above everything else, all her opponents denounced the effect of Malini’s litigious tendencies. She spent a great deal of time in court, suing anyone who dared use her husband’s name or work without her consent, which resulted in effectively taking Towne out of the literary conversation and mummifying his work—he could not be quoted, parodied, or pillaged in the ways that keep a writer alive and relevant.

Although opinions on these matters were divided—some believed that any addition to Towne’s body of work was a gift, that the critical editions and compilations were important achievements, that the lawsuits protected the sanctity of his writings—they still referred to verifiable facts. But Malini’s most bitter adversaries had objections whose veracity was harder to corroborate. For those who had not been close to Towne, the tales could not be more than hearsay, however eager they were to believe them. Still, it was true that many of the writer’s former close friends had, despite some incongruities, similar stories about Malini. It was said, for instance, that her Hindu halo (her conspicuously austere garments, her references to deities and myths, her palms so often pressed together in front of her chest) was an affectation acquired after moving in with Towne—even if born in India, Martha’s father, an Illinois dentist, had no recollection of his native land, and her mother was of Irish descent. If true, this would only mean that Malini was somewhat frivolous in character—a harmless accusation. Other allegations, however, were far graver. Most former friends claimed to have been cut off from Towne by Malini, who had isolated him completely. Of course, several people from his old circle remained close, but it was said that she had the final word on whom Towne was allowed to see. She only took him out, some alleged, to attend highly publicized events (presumably for large fees), while keeping him away from the intimate dinners and gatherings where more vibrant and meaningful conversation took place. According to other rumors, still harder to validate, Malini abused and terrorized the invalid writer by not speaking to him for days, by neglecting to wash him, and by underfeeding him. Someone claimed to have seen him reduced to a soiled heap in a dark room.

As a Towne scholar, Harry Davis was familiar with these stories and believed he could tell truth from slander. Moreover, he had formed his own opinion after meeting Malini at public events and speaking with her on the phone over a dozen times. He had first called her some six years before her death to ask for her blessing for a compilation he was putting together of Towne’s lesser-known journalistic pieces. She was, he thought, tense and maybe frightened under her white, calm surface. She seldom raised her voice above a whisper and spoke in a hurried staccato that, perhaps, she hoped would pass for assertiveness. In time, he discovered that her conversation was limited to issues that concerned her directly—practical matters, for the most part. Because of her age, some sort of strategy, or simply her vanity (Davis could not tell which), each time they spoke, Malini asked him to start from scratch and remind her who he was and tell her everything about his project. Invariably, this was followed by her legal admonitions. There was something petty about her, and he thought that very pettiness was precisely what made her incapable of the monstrous deeds she was accused of. In his view, a monster could never be so fastidious and insecure. In fact, lawsuits aside, Davis found her quite harmless. Vain, incompetent, and possessive—yes. But to him, there was something touching about these demerits. In short, he did not believe the darker stories told about her and was convinced these myths were misogynistic reactions of the old guard who could not stand to see the work of the great man in the hands of a woman.

Davis’s compilation got mired in endless exchanges with attorneys, agents, and publishers, and it never saw the light. Still, after he had given up, he kept calling Malini a couple of times a year. These awkward conversations had no clear purpose and never led anywhere, but if Davis insisted on them, it was because Martha Malini was the strongest living link to Towne, whose work he revered. It was Towne who had instilled in him the desire to become a writer; it was Towne to whom he had devoted seven years of his youth at a doctoral program; it was Towne’s books he taught his students one semester after the other; it was Towne’s voice he had to suppress in each novel he tried to write. He had barely been born when the great writer died. So, even if he found her somewhat questionable, Davis stayed in touch with Malini. Each time they spoke, after the customary reminders and clarifications (during their last conversations, Davis felt that she pretended to pretend to remember him), she invariably would deliver a long jeremiad. She was so busy and had no life of her own. Not a moment to herself. Every second of her existence was dedicated to Towne. A foreword to a commemorative edition, a speech at the Frankfurt Fair, an exhibition of his manuscripts at the American Academy in Rome, managing the foundation, a tribute at the PEN Festival, the sale of some papers to Princeton, interviews with the press, a reading at the British Library, commissioning new translations into Japanese, meetings with agents. It never ended. And the lawsuits. Always the lawsuits. Copyright infringements, libel, plagiarism. There simply was not enough time. She had not a moment to herself. No life of her own. I have no life of my own, she repeated over and over again.

Eventually, Davis stopped calling. Malini had unleashed her lawyers on two young writers who had published experimental texts based on some of Towne’s stories. One of them refused to pay his fine and was sentenced to prison. That the young author, who was also a performance artist, seemed rather excited about the verdict did not help Davis. Like many others, he felt Malini had gone too far. Besides, Davis’s own writing career had finally taken off, and he lost interest in his academic pursuits in general and in Towne as a scholarly subject in particular. His moderately successful first book freed him from the great author’s overwhelming influence. He lost all contact with Malini. She died three or four years later.

One month after her death, Davis received a call from Malini’s attorneys. He played the message several times, searching for a ciphered meaning in the few recorded words asking him to return the call as soon as possible. Surprise yielded to fear. Could Malini be suing him from beyond the grave? He went through all the articles he had ever written about Towne, searching for unattributed quotations or defamatory passages. A few paraphrased segments worried him. Once he had all his published papers and monographs at hand, he called back. The conversation was too short for anyone to notice the tremor in his voice. They simply asked him to come in at his earliest convenience. It was about an important matter they could not discuss over the phone.

The following morning, Harry Davis was sitting at a conference table together with four lawyers and Michael Chatham, Towne’s literary agent. They read Malini’s will. Most of her assets went to hospitals and libraries in New York and Kolkata. There was only one legatee who was an individual, and his name came up at the end. Davis was the sole inheritor of Francis Towne’s literary estate.

He decided to keep the news to himself until he could make sense of it. Malini had not left a letter or any kind of explanation, and he needed a narrative. The world had changed from one moment to the next, without any transition. It was like with magic tricks, where the process is concealed from the spectator, who is presented only with a result. Or like pure chance—an effect without a visible cause. Yes, it was as if his name had been entered into a raffle. Absurd as it was, this made more sense than any other explanation. Why would Malini bequeath him the estate? She would never have recognized his face in a crowd. She barely knew his name—just enough to feign that she had forgotten it. Had she secretly been following his career and reading his writings about Towne? Had she been testing him all those years? Perhaps she had read Davis’s novel and deemed him Towne’s rightful heir. Davis did not care about Malini’s literary judgment, but this mere possibility flattered him. Maybe she was lonely—completely lonely. Maybe Towne’s circle, her only society since her early twenties, had shunned her. Maybe Davis’s calls had been her only social interactions outside her professional duties. This seemed even more ridiculous than the secret lottery. She was disliked, no doubt, but she must have been surrounded by sycophants and freeloaders. Legions of hypocrites surely had been working on her steadily for years, hoping to be written into her will.

About ten days later, he saw his own name in the papers. Since the lawyers were bound to silence, Michael Chatham must have been responsible for the leak. The multiple calls he received from his office seemed to confirm this. Chatham, who had once turned Davis down as a client with a form letter, now wanted to sign him on as soon as possible—it would make sense to consolidate everything, he said. He also pushed Davis to release a statement at once. Davis wrote a short text expressing his surprise at the honor conferred on him, acknowledging Malini’s tremendous work over the last decades, and promising to do everything within his reach to preserve and promote Towne’s legacy by making it more accessible to everyone.

Immediately after the announcement, Davis was overwhelmed with congratulatory messages and requests for interviews. At first, he tried to send personal responses but soon was using the same template for everyone. He agreed to see a few journalists, as long as there was no video involved, a ban he stopped enforcing after a few days. In all his interviews his main point always was that, as an executor, he wished to disappear behind Towne’s work. He would just be a facilitator. Besides, he had his own career to look after, and he wanted his own pursuits as an author to remain apart from his tasks regarding the estate. But he discovered it was impossible to keep these spheres separate. Davis’s book sales soared once his name became associated with Towne’s. The first edition had been released by an independent press, but Chatham made a new deal with Towne’s publisher: they would reissue Davis’s first novel and sign him for two new books. Davis knew this sudden success was because of Towne—but he also felt he deserved it.

With the new contract came promotional obligations. For a while, Davis was all over the media. Despite his best efforts, every feature or interview at some point veered toward Towne and the estate. His name always came with the same apposition—he had become “Harry Davis, Francis Towne’s literary executor.” After a few weeks, he realized that he would spend more time promoting Towne’s work than his own. Malini had scheduled numerous commitments months and even years before her death, many of which Davis now had to honor. The Guadalajara Book Fair, the ZEE Jaipur and the Hay festivals, UNESCO, and the Berlin State Library resulted in a leave of absence from his university position. Between trips, he had to deal with a constant stream of requests. Someone wanted to put together a compilation (very much like the one he had planned years ago); someone was thinking of adapting one of Towne’s novels for the screen; someone planned to reissue his radio interviews. And then, of course, the lawyers. Davis was far from litigious and intended to manage the legal aspect of the estate in a more open way, but almost every day he was presented with documents that required his consideration, his signature, and, sometimes, his presence in court.

When he received the inheritance, Davis had just started work on his second book. Now, a few months later, he found it impossible to regain the lost momentum. The plot, the tone, and the structure were clear in his mind, and yet he was unable to write a convincing page. To make more time for himself, he hired a personal assistant. Although at first it embarrassed him to have one, his assistant soon became a crucial presence in his life. Still, regardless of how much work he delegated, there were too many social appointments and issues that demanded his personal attention. And whenever he found a spare moment and managed to overcome his exhaustion, everything he wrote seemed lifeless.

Little changed over the next three years or so. He honored all the commitments inherited from Malini, but these engagements led to new ones—more book fairs, universities, literary festivals, and libraries. The foundation alone was almost a full-time job. Sometimes he was invited to read some of his own texts or give a workshop, but after a while, he started to turn down these events. It was embarrassing to be able to read only from his first book, written too long ago, and to give writing advice he was unable to follow. He did, however, give several talks and keynote addresses on Towne’s work. Because of his constant travels, he finally had to give up his teaching position, so he welcomed every chance to lecture and even started to pursue these opportunities, although they were all related to Towne.

Five or seven years ago, Davis moved to the country—someplace near Hudson. They say he finds the New York literary scene oppressive. Every six months, he has lunch with his editor. At first, they used to discuss Davis’s novel in progress and had passionate conversations about the books that would follow it. In time, however, their meals started to revolve around literary gossip, TV miniseries, and frequent flyer programs. Davis stopped asking for extensions—it was understood that he had been granted an open-ended one. Both his editor and his agent still believe country life will help his work. Since he moved Upstate, Davis has become a very private man. Except for his public appearances connected to the master’s legacy and the occasional interview (where he avoids talking about himself), he is barely seen. His compilation of Towne’s early journalistic pieces is due out any day now.

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