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Reading Paul West

Anne-Laure Tissut

IV. Témoignages et textes inédits de Paul West

Mysterious Figures I: My Other Self

Robert Lima

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1I have lectured at many universities in the United States and abroad but never at Cornell. In itself, there’s nothing unusual in this—there are numerous other institutions I have not visited as a speaker—but a rather strange circumstance related to Cornell makes it imperative that I narrate what follows.

2Paul West, the noted novelist and memoirist who was my colleague at Penn State for many years, has a house in Ithaca, New York with his companion, the writer Diane Ackerman. They had invited me to visit but I had never found the occasion to do so. I had been to Ithaca and the Cornell campus only once, and that was as a brief stop on a summer trip returning to Pennsylvania from Canada; I didn’t think it appropriate to foist my wife and four children on Paul and Diane. I have never visited Cornell again; although I would have gone there had my candidacy for a deanship some time ago moved beyond the exchange of letters.

3Years later, on encountering Paul on the Penn State campus, I was surprised by his aloofness. More than that, he seemed annoyed. Not one to let pass a friend’s snub without questioning its motive, I confronted him. It turned out that he felt I had snubbed him and Diane. Somewhat dumbfounded, I pursued the inquiry. What I learned was a revelation of supernatural magnitude.

4Paul explained that I had failed to contact him and Diane when I lectured at Cornell recently. I told him that I had not lectured or even been there since the family outing years before. He persisted, however, telling me that I had been the guest of the Romance Languages Department and Comparative Literature. He claimed that I had offered a seminar under their auspices and that a woman friend had sat in on my presentation. I reiterated my case, offering that perhaps my name had been misunderstood, or that someone had impersonated me, and Paul offered to have the matter mediated by the friend who had vouched for my presence at Cornell.

5In the meantime, I ran into a former student who informed me that someone was going around town and campus claiming to be Robert Lima. This was too much of a coincidence coming as it did so close to my Cornell situation. I asked the informant if he could identify the impersonator and heard him described as a short, fat, red-headed youngish man. Not even close. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, as has been said, this proved the adage to be skewed. This was obviously an inane hoax but it was my second encounter with identity theft. I never did locate the rascal and the matter never escalated.

6When Paul contacted me some days later, we met in his English Department office in South Burrowes Building. I recounted the other act of impersonation, wondering if the Cornell case could be assigned to the same perpetrator. But I was nonplussed when he told me that the friend at Cornell had checked that it was indeed my name on the announcement of the seminar and that those present verified my participation. Yet, what flabbergasted me most was that she described me perfectly! She added, perhaps as an incentive for me to own up to my visit, that I had been “brilliant.” Paul rested his case.

7I knew that I had not been there, brilliant or not! I also knew that the matter had gone beyond the possibility that Paul was pulling my leg. Having created and taught a course entitled “Literature of the Occult” for many years, I had recourse to the only explanation left to me: a non-rational, supernatural answer for my supposed visit to Cornell. While I knew that I had not been to Cornell on that occasion, I concluded that it must have been my Doppelganger, my apparitional double! This being must have acted my part convincingly since my description was so precise but I wondered why it had not been mentioned that its feet never touched the ground, a dead give-away of an unnatural double. Perhaps the seminar attendees had only seen my other seated.

8I think I managed to convince Paul—or was he merely tired of my protestations—that I had not committed a breach of etiquette because I had not been there to do so and that, as hard to believe as it was, I was oblivious to the presence of a supernatural impersonator, even if it was my alter ego in that seminar room. To this day, I have not found out the answer to the enigma.

9Nor have I ever received payment for my “brilliant” presentation at Cornell University.

10Consequently, the question remains: If the honorarium was paid to the Doppelganger, what did he/it do with the money? Did he/it take it and disappear into the realm of the supernatural? If so, it may prove that capitalism rules there as in this world.

11My hope however is that when I cross over, I will have awaiting me the start of something like a savings account, the result of an honorarium for services rendered by my Doppelganger. No doubt, the funds will have been earning interest.

12And when I meet Paul on the other side, I will treat him to a great single malt and a heavenly dinner, to be paid for in the currency of that realm from the earnings of my other self.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2009

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