Ioften think of King Lear as he is towards the end of the play: convinced that any human suffering in the people he meets must be the result of harsh treatment from rotten daughters. Shakespeare understood so well the way we locate our own preoccupations and obsessions in the hearts of others. At times of crisis, in order for another person’s experience to count fully with us, does it need to mirror our own?
Biographers endlessly see reflections of their subjects in every available surface and situation. Literary critics obsessed with doppelgängers discover them in all texts that come their way. And, even closer to home, for those who are still in search of a sofa, 18 months and counting, all the world’s a sofa.
Watching After the Dance, a lost Terence Rattigan play about purposeless Mayfair residents on the eve of the second world war, I found myself mesmerised by the sofa on stage in the drawing room. Capacious and inviting, in a sort of colourless linen-look fabric, it was not beautiful but generous and sturdy in the country house style, providing a great setting for sprawling and whispering, as well as cocktails and witty badinage.
From this sofa (or very near it), I heard a staunch lady-typist character announce how overrated spring is, and I saw her point, for spring is a bit vulgar and hysterical and sentimental with its blossom and new lambs. (Autumn’s my favourite.) This sofa also came complete with its own permanent resident, who sat throughout most of the play commenting on the morals and motivations of the rest of the cast.
I had never thought a sofa could function as a sort of Greek chorus, watching and judging and, I hope, forgiving behaviour. Hmmm. In that sofa I also saw a warning: choose a model that is too comfy and, like a fetching spare room, it may attract the long-stay guest.
At the Donmar Warehouse, the leather sofa on the set of Simon Gray’s The Late Middle Classes was very ugly, rightly so: the scene of strangulated telephone conversations and a great deal of bad parenting. In the circle bar of the theatre, however, it was a different story. A wall-mounted, red velvet U-shaped bench was surprisingly accommodating, cosy even. Above it, a rotating fan roared cool air at us, and ice chinked in glasses of white wine. I realised then that I like a sofa that makes you feel something is about to happen, rather than one where time stands still. “Like in a waiting room?” my companion asked.
The words “waiting room”, when uttered in relation to a sofa, are the height of condemnation. It’s like perceiving “a forced intensity” in a work of art. There is just no come back after that. It’s over.
At Dreamlands, an exhibition at the Pompidou in Paris, there was a sofa from 1980 made to resemble a crimson sun rising over New York’s skyline. I pondered a London version with Big Ben and the London Palladium, but it was all too literal somehow.
I wrote to the most stylish person I know, a fellow who scours the world in search of beauty and joy, and said I was looking for a lovely sofa that is glamorous and a tiny bit surprising, but not downright lavish or louche, and I have looked everywhere. I like the Florence Knoll three-seater in chrome and scarlet bouclé, I tell him, but they sure know how to charge; the B&B Italia armless Febo has lovely blanket stitching, though perhaps overall it’s too refined; some of the Howard models appeal, but I’m not sure I could live up to them. Please help!
Weeks passed but, oddly, no reply. Next, watching the high-class American shrink-soap In Treatment, I saw different patients come and go on a large battered couch that had seen better days. I realised I have been looking for a sofa with a bit of glamour, but perhaps this was a mistake, for here was a sofa that was in the consolation business. It had been through what you had been through. It was rooting for you. It was even sorry for your trouble.
But I am too proud to wear my heart on my sofa arm. Sprawling sofas make me feel buttoned up. They’re embarrassing, too, for they seem to cater for bouts of planned spontaneity, the idea of which makes me queasy. The more upright models beckon. I don’t feel comfortable in comfortable clothes. I get the sense that things are slipping: going, going, gone! Is it the same with sofas?
Perhaps at the heart of all my upholstery wrangles is one small reproach to the world: you think I have time to put my feet up? Besides, does buying any kind of sofa mean I confess to being a bit of a lay-about? Deep down – not ideal this I know – I think I’ve always twinned relaxation with anxiety. Isn’t it better to keep plodding along?
My mother phones and in seconds – the funniest thing – she is talking about sofas. “But can’t you just get something really plain and lovely and classic?” she says.
“Yes! But where do they sell those?” I ask.
“Oh, you know, on the computer,” she says with authority. And then: “They have them there, surely?”
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