His books are long out of print, basically forgotten. And when they were current, his last name always overshadowed his first. But contemporary readers fortunate enough to spend time with Shiva Naipaul, the late younger brother of Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul, will find the former a true original, perhaps the great lost author of the 1970s. “My choice of career must seem like an exercise in masochism,” he admits in the essay “My Brother and I”: The paradox is this: I was doing anything but following in my brother’s footsteps when I started to write. Rather, I had taken the first step on the road to independence, to the autonomy that had always been denied me. A dozen years younger than his celebrated sibling, Shiva Naipaul travelled a remarkably similar route, progressing from childhood in Trinidad to a scholarship at Oxford and eventually, pursuit of the writer’s life in London. Adding to the confusion, the subject matter of his books is, at first glance, remarkably similar to his brother’s, even patently Naipaulian. Two rich tragicomic novels set in his native island, Fireflies and The Chip-Chip Gatherers, garnered awards for Shiva Naipaul upon publication in the early ’70s—as well as inevitable comparisons to his brother’s first masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas. For all their surface similarities to Sir Vidia’s early work, however, the younger Naipaul’s family sagas cast a more humane look upon the extended Indian immigrant clans settled in Trinidad, incorporating rounded, complete female characters and their points of view. Modern concepts of education and ambition bump up against old-world traditions in Shiva Naipaul’s Indo-Trinidadian characters, mixing and mingling in unpredictable, volatile ratios. While her neighbors consider Baby Luchtman, the resilient heroine of Fireflies, to be “too big for she boots,” it’s her uncle, the failed patriarch turned political wanna-be Govind Khoja, who skewers himself with ludicrous ambition: Deprived of his authority at the head of the family, he was like a fish out of water, breathing in the noxious air of rebellion and insult. Unhappily, in the years since his mother’s death, this is exactly what had happened. Thus, since he was to be debarred henceforth from playing the guru to his own family, he would be guru to the people at large. The purveyor of an incomprehensible doctrine on education could not be challenged or called to account: the masses could only listen, be mystified and obey. So at any rate, Mr. Khoja believed. Turning to narrative nonfiction after The Chip-Chip Gatherers came out in 1973, Naipaul invited further comparisons to his brother’s work by documenting a six-month trip through Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia in North of South: An African Journey (1978). Split between sharply observant travel writing and acidic political interpretation, North of South may work better as opinionated long-form journalism than objective history: It’s slightly anachronistic, and often problematic if judged by current standards. Once—or if—you get past his use of the word “primitive,” Naipaul expresses, and in fact demands, respect for indigenous cultures while unblinkingly documenting the complexities of postcolonial life, confronting the condescending white settlers and decrying their racism. [millions_ad] His next book is arguably Shiva Naipaul’s nonfiction apotheosis, and his personal Waterloo. Journey to Nowhere (titled Black and White in the U.K.) places the author in Guyana just days after the Jonestown mass suicides. Struggling to make sense of the senseless, Naipaul provides context and finally, insight into this still-inexplicable nightmare. The most recent account of the tragedy, Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (2017), is far more thoroughly researched yet nevertheless pales in comparison to Naipaul’s fitful exploration. Tracing Jim Jones’s strange trip back to his ostensibly progressive roots in the Bay Area, Naipaul indulges in a touch of cliched California-bashing before unearthing the horrible and half-hidden truth about the cult leader: Deep racial terror was mercilessly exposed and exploited in the People’s Temple. Jones stripped bare his following and left them naked and defenseless. He did not liberate; he assaulted and traumatized those who believed in him. Once can sense at a certain level his raging hatred for the blacks whose God he claimed to be; a hatred so deep-seated, so tormenting that, it its fury, it turned itself inside out and called itself Love. Returning to fiction with Love in a Hot Country (1983), Shiva Naipaul portrays star-crossed lives in a corrupt and ravaged Caribbean nation after the revolution. His voice and vision are decidedly bleaker here yet no less compelling than in the previous novels. A stunning collection of essays and short stories titled Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth appeared in 1985—the same year Shiva Naipaul died suddenly of a heart attack at age 40. In the introduction to the posthumous collection An Unfinished Journey (1987), Naipaul’s father-in law Douglas Stuart recalls asking him about a return to the comic vein of his initial fiction. Naipaul replied: “How can I? I have walked over the bodies at Jonestown.” But he was far from exhausted. “Beyond The Dragon’s Mouth,” an autobiographical essay first published in 1984, relays the depth, and fortitude, of his inspiration: I grew up in a no-man’s land. Suburban life with its ease and unrelenting worship of American standards, American ideals, had not existed when I was a boy. Its assumptions and prejudices were unfamiliar to me. If I was like a fish out of water at a Hindu rite, I was no less a fish out of water at a drive-in cinema with the vapors of hot dogs and hamburgers. Such definition as I do now posses has its roots in nothing other than personal exigency. Every day, I have to redefine myself. In his abbreviated oeuvre, Shiva Naipaul conducts a restless search to comprehend the world at large, and himself. Whatever his further journeys, both real and imagined, might have revealed, he left us plenty to unpack.
1. Meeting Leonard I met Leonard Cohen—then a Zen monk—on a dirt road in the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles at the edge of the Mojave Desert. From the main road to the Master’s quarters was a gravelly avenue, dusty in the summer, shaded in parts by 100-year-old sugar pines that leaned high, toward each other, and seemed to whisper amongst themselves. Manzanita shrubs scaled the gentle climb of the mountain above and below the rocky drive. And occasionally a pickup truck or SUV would zip through the narrow way, driven by an ardent monk with an important sense of purpose: to, say, deliver asphalt shingles from Home Depot so that we could hammer them without delay to the hot tar-papered roof of the meditation hall, which we called by its Japanese name, the zendo. At the top of the road, I was walking with Andy, a bedraggled, long-haired, bearded, red-headed fellow initiate—more of a comrade than a friend—who ran about the Zen Center in the manner of his Chinese astrology sign, explosively, like a rabbit. I felt a car approaching and tensed. But quite unusually, the car slowed to a roll that met our walking pace. The engine quieted, and almost stopped. My body began to relax. Making its way past us, the Nissan Pathfinder’s window came down. The driver revealed his face, and spoke in a tired, dulcet voice, “Excuse me, friends.” It was Leonard. And then he pulled forward, leaving the gravel, dirt, and pedestrians unperturbed. 2. The Flame Since then, Leonard—his body—has passed. No more live concerts. No new songs, or poems, except those that might be posthumously published by his estate. His son, Adam Cohen, has now assembled and anointed The Flame. The Flame is a book whose completion Adam tells us was his father’s “sole breathing purpose at the end.” It was a project for which Leonard “renewed his commitment to rigorous meditation so as to focus his mind through the acute pain of multiple compression fractures and the weakening of his body.” Leonard died on Nov. 7, 2016. And I agree with Adam when he writes, “It feels darker now, but the flame was not killed. Each page of paper that he blackened was lasting evidence of a burning soul.” 3. Invoking the Realm of Chivalry Aside from his manners and his suits, Leonard invoked the realm of chivalry and romance, such as when—in a dining hall with fold-up tables and a flaking linoleum floor, in honor of his Zen Master Roshi’s 35th anniversary of teaching in America—he presented a wooden, silk-lined box of perfectly stacked rows of gold coins, generous in amount. The gift, offered with an over-dramatic speech about how the Master (who is now dead) had prevented a monk’s suicide, invoked the atmosphere of ancient song—like an offering at Solomon’s temple. And this seemed to be Leonard’s way. He transformed the world into his image of it. And those of us who were around when he did so were brought into a land of ancient poetic lore. It was fun to be transposed by his projections into a universe that seemed deeper—or at least more merry, rich and imaginative—than ours. Leonard augmented the atmosphere with an almost histrionic, celebratory air. He was resolute in wanting to avoid a dissolution into mundane lifelessness. He was vigilantly aware of the “great inevitable defeat that awaits us all,” and he wished to express this awareness “within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.” I’m pretty sure that Roshi was aware of Leonard’s effect, and certainly proud—one might even say boastful at times— to have the celebrity by his side. He used the poet for his own enterprise, and often to great effect, as did we all in our own little ways. [millions_ad] 4. A Relationship in Silence Leonard was gracious, and he let us use him. He let us feel good about ourselves by being friendly enough to us to allow us to say of him that he—Leonard Cohen—was our friend. And yet one never knew where he stood. He seemed nice enough. One felt close to him, but then we’d pull his Book of Longing from the shelf at Borders Books in Montclair Plaza beside Interstate 10 and read of his time among us: I was known as a Monk I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early I hated everyone but I acted generously and no one found me out He was very kind to me. Upon graduation from my training I started a temple in San Francisco. It was a meager affair, but warm and sincere, made so by its dear attendees. And to support this gathering Leonard contributed a significant regular donation, without my having asked. Unsolicited, there arrived in the mail a purple card with the picture of a Spanish-looking guitar—very much like the one on Page 269 of The Flame. In the card was a check signed, “Leonard Cohen.” And every month thereafter, another donation arrived. I thanked, him, of course. My benefactor. I recall a moment when we dressed together, putting on our monk-robes for a formal talk by the Master, and he said, as if we were about to be inducted by a cult, “They’ll never get us.” He was implying by this, I think, that though we fled as refugees from American culture, because it degraded our standards of beauty and life, we would not—in turning to a Zen Buddhist alternative with powerful rituals and traditions—be taken in by another. But if Leonard let us take of his graciousness, he took of us. He drew inspiration from the world he created, but he needed us to create it—to nourish his G-d (as he always wrote it), his Spirit of Song—which, I believe, is what he truly worshipped. I think—and not in a bad way—that in a culture as broken and empty of meaning as ours, Leonard sought to cobble together a secular poetic religion. Such a thing demanded spaces in which his thoughts could live. The physical, worldly connections to his teacher, to us, and his fans allowed him to realize, incarnate and serve what he lived for: the Lord of Song. And this is one of the reasons that I think we love him—not for the excellence of his poems—but for his valiant effort to preserve through his imagination the importance of inner life, and the sources from which meaning and kindness are born. In this sense, his struggle and longing serve as a kind of heuristic device, a form of self-compassion that grants us permission to reflect on ourselves—on our solitary situations (our failures and our brokenness)—alone, together. Leonard was a Pop Prophet, and we love him for that—for honoring, respecting, enjoying and understanding life enough to keep The Flame alive. 5. Leonard’s Effect on the Princess of Spain My favorite piece in the book is Leonard’s thank you speech to Spain, the “Acceptance Address for the Prince of Asturias Award.” There is a line in that speech in which he tells us of the time he lifted his Conde guitar, light as helium, from its case. “I brought it to my face. I put my face close to the beautifully designed rosette, and I inhaled the fragrance of the living wood.” He was gracious, noble, a master of charm. And I think he knew it. But if he was a seducer, it seems to me that he worked to seduce us back to ourselves—to life and to living, to the creaturely meaning of our life, so that we might express thanks for it—and, in the spirit of surrender, mercy to G-d for his cruelty (for knowing that we ourselves can be as cruel, and to underscore the fact that however bleak our life may be, at the very least it’s life, and that as long as we have it, it’s our life, however small it may seem compared to the hugeness of time). All this while pointing us to the recognition that one of the great redeeming things we hold in our power, which allows us to rebel against our end, is our capacity for friendship. 6. The Greedy Monk in Our Midst I recall standing next to him, gathered for a group photograph after a Buddhist ceremony in L.A., happy to be there with Jikan—as Leonard was called by the “Zens”—as a person who had showed me so many small kindnesses in the midst of a challenging career. But as this joy settled in, a monk who prided himself on writing and who had written two poor (in my opinion) books about life as a monk quietly pressed his angry body against mine, to shove me off balance so that I might lose my spot beside Leonard for him to take. I found out later that Leonard wrote an introduction to one of this monk’s books. Leonard gave endlessly, and, one felt, indiscriminately, kindly, and generously. I was not thrown off balance, physically—but I was surprised by the monk’s behavior. Since then, it turns out, he seems to have abandoned his monastic calling, having used—maybe as Leonard had—Buddhism as a ruse, and as a source, for secular content. 7. Leonard’s Gift: Modesty, Majesty, and Love As it’s come to America, Buddhism has been cheapened. Psychologized, romanticized, popularized. If Leonard’s imagination was anemic in its ability to generate true religious content, it was nonetheless kind. And in the end, I think it is the spirit of his kindness that we’ll keep. Leonard’s attitude, his values, his vulnerability, and his seemingly sincere desire for humanitarian agreement, peace, decency, healing and connection are his legacy. And if that is what he provided as a voice, it’s a voice I believe we need, and one, maybe, that sings us in the right direction. A spiritual stem cell, perhaps, still to be developed in its various forms—but in the direction of gracious modesty, majesty, and love. Thank you for your care, Leonard. And thank you for L. Cohen—our friend. Image: Flickr/Bill Strain
1. When the tomatoes were ripe, when my closet was eager with crisp shirts and clean sneakers, when I had jumped off of a high swing and was lying in the grass listening to mourning doves and lawn mowers—that’s when the hot air balloons came. One of the children on the cul-de-sac would spot it first. He’d point and run from yard to yard as the stripes of orange, yellow, purple, and red silently descended. Fathers turned off their mowers. Mothers snuffed their cooking flames and poured wine. The children sprinted while the grown ups walked through one another’s yards to the place where the wicker basket seemed to lean, and we waited, staring upward and waving. The balloon dipped gently and clumsily. Sometimes it glided to another neighbor’s yard, and we followed its path—20 of us in cutoffs and summer dresses. Its burners coughed fire, and when the balloon got close, the fire was loud. When it touched down, the fathers ran to it, grabbing hold of the wicker and wires, their weight too light to keep the basket from skidding through the sweet grass. The balloons came because we had big yards. They came because we were lucky. To the family who owned the yard, the pilot presented a bottle of champagne. Then he tipped the basket on its side, and we watched as the balloon billowed, breathing like a jellyfish, and swooned to the ground. I like to think this happened often each summer—that there was a hot air balloon season, that they descended as assuredly as summer storms. Maybe it only happened three times in my life. My vision of the event—the abundance, the gauzy repose, the family intact, with mother and father performing their various duties and the children swinging safely in the yard—exposes the particular awe that leavens my memory of suburban childhood. As I remember it, we really were that lucky. I don’t remember whether my big brother came running with the neighbor boys. Where was he then, and what did he see? Maybe Joe was at the stream behind the houses, studying the antennae of crayfish. Maybe he was melting slugs beneath salt. Maybe he was already 14, on the train tracks with Sam, whose thumb was torn from trying to open a beer bottle on a rock. Maybe he was laughing and scared as his friend bled onto the rails. Or was he looking up, following the bright descent through the evening light? In literary study, we talk about vision. How does the narrator see the world? we ask. To what does she draw the reader’s eye? To evaluate a text, my professor used to ask, “Do you want to continue seeing the world with this person?” Joe and I saw the world differently. We diverged in what we noticed, what we remembered, and how we interpreted the images in view. I suspect he wouldn’t have clung to the balloons lilting over the gardens the way I have, for they wouldn’t suit his vision. Conversely, I chose to look away from the images on which he focused—first, the withering slugs; later, the warehouse parties, the needles in his skin. When he died, one humid afternoon in my mother’s living room, my vision of the world was altered. 2. “Something is the matter with the sunsets.” Mary Cabot writes this in her diary in the 1868 epistolary novel The Gates Ajar. One week has passed since she learned that her brother has died at war. “Something is the matter with the sunsets,” she laments; “they come and go and I do not notice them. Something ails the voices of children, snowballing down the street; all the music has gone out of them.” I read The Gates Ajar after Joe had died, just 32 and overcome in his own quiet war. Written by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Gates was one of the two most widely sold religious novels of the 19th century. It’s the diary of a young woman bereaved three times over: Her mother died when she was a child, and her father died in her adolescence, leaving Mary and her brother Roy to care for one another. Mary is 24 when Roy is killed, and sorrow changes her vision of the world. “The lazy winds are choking me,” she writes, “Their faint sweetness makes me sick.” “The great maple, just reaching up to tap at the window, blazes and bows under its weight of scarlet blossoms. I cannot bear their perfume.” Like all of us, Mary possesses a particular vision of the world. She is a person who notices winds and scarlet blossoms. She notices sunsets. As a narrator, she turns our faces so that we see what she sees. She doesn’t point us to steel stacks, or bacon grease, or cadavers, because, though these things may cross her line of sight, they do not stay with her. They do not compose her vision of the world. After Roy dies, Mary can’t bear the beauty that she once may have loved to behold. She thinks of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem and reflects, “It is easy to understand how Bianca heard ‘The nightingales sing through her head,’ how she could call them ‘Owl-like birds,’ who sang ‘for spite,’ who sang ‘for hate,’ who sang ‘for doom.’” Browning and Phelps both use a literary device that, early in the next century, T.S. Eliot would popularize with the phrase objective correlative. This is Eliot’s name for the way that a writer can express a character’s emotional state by projecting that emotion onto objects in the character’s view. In the essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” Eliot writes, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Are the moonflowers spectral or lustrous? Is the wisteria weeping or in repose? Each tells you something different about the state of mind of the speaker. Mary Cabot’s diary reads, “I hate the bluebirds flashing in and out of the carmine cloud that the maple makes, and singing, singing everywhere …Most of all I hate the maple.” 3. In my 20s, my frame of vision held long dinner tables lined with lavender shoots, gifts wrapped in twine, and the glad faces of friends, which I studied as I flipped again and again through photos, reliving the weekend. My vision was filled with living rooms of people singing along to a folk song, and bars where my friends’ band played and the rest of us danced. In my range of view: Philadelphia cobblestone. Nasturtium spilling from window boxes. The glittering face of Lake George in summer. Sunflowers in wedding bouquets, and a dozen faces singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow” at birthdays over wine-soaked dinners. My temple pressed against my husband’s cheek, my eyelashes tracing his skin like a moth’s wing. If perception was a camera, I captured what I found beautiful, and shaped a moral understanding of the world based on these scenes. The world I saw was loving and abundant, and surprises were good, coming from the sky like hot air balloons. Outside of the frame: Philly blocks laden with trash and cracked concrete. Films about drugs: Pulp Fiction and Blow. Dirty politics and foreign wars. I chose not to look at these, and the glimpses that I did see did not penetrate my expectation that overall, things were good, and getting better. Also outside of the frame: My own brother’s work DJing late-night parties in North Philly warehouses—he invited me now and then and I didn’t go. The art Joe liked: Berlin producers and sinister cartoons. The drugs he used: meth, ecstasy, and the heroin that killed him. Like most addicts, Joe didn’t want his drug use to be seen. He expertly kept it out of sight. I have come to understand that my seeing it likely wouldn’t have changed its impact. But I wonder: How would our relationship have been different if, while he lived, I had really seen my brother? What if I had welcomed his vision of the world into my own? “While you were watching Seventh Heaven, Joe was watching the X-Files,” my mother remembers. He was drawn to the extraterrestrial, the apocalyptic, the digital. He loved the game Doom and the late-night History Channel feature Ancient Aliens. His vision was full of scenarios in which people had to protect themselves from impending harm. The moral implication of this vision was that self-preservation was more expedient than love—a conviction he’d insist upon as an adult, in the same breath with which he’d call me sentimental. Joe’s vision was crowded with scenes like this: In his early 20s, the yard of his row home backed up to the yard of a church. There was a big freezer in that yard full of frozen turkeys. More than once, he climbed the fence at night to steal those turkeys, rock hard and heavy. He and his roommate thawed the birds and basted their cold, pale skins with oil and Sriracha and threw a Friendsgiving. With this roommate he spent hours in front of computer screens, his eyes pooling with purple light as he stared at the knobs and columns of production software, beats scattered across the screen like morse code. Then they were out performing the tracks they’d produced, watching the dance floor swell and sigh as the parties exhaled into the fog of morning. Joe loved to watch the purity of expression on the dance floor. He made music because he was addicted to the technical precision required to make a complex track, but also because his music gave people the freedom to let loose, to move, to hide or to be seen, luminous and transfigured among the other swaying bodies. The desire for a luminous body, a free body, must have coursed like a drug through his own body, bound and distressed as it was by its vices. Years before, when we were teenagers in the same house, I noticed that the bathroom often smelled like vomit. I didn’t ask about this; already he’d begun using drugs, and my love was so tightly entwined with my disappointment that I knew my concern would be heard as critique. After he died, I read that most heroin users vomit almost immediately after the drug hits their system, sometimes repeatedly. Also after he died, I found a journal entry my father had written during Joe’s late teenaged years: Again, I found a little pile of vomit in the basement office, in a Tupperware container in the closet. I’ve found these piles before, on the carpet, or crusted in the grass behind the shed. What is wrong with my son? What failure along the way rendered him unable to care for himself? His failure? My own? My father saw what I chose not to see: So often, Joe’s frame of vision was filled with little piles of his own food, eaten and expelled from his thin, pale frame. When Joe looked in the mirror, he saw rotted teeth. For years, I thought this resulted from the cigarettes he smoked. After he died, I read about meth mouth, caused by the acidity of the drug and the dry mouth, teeth-grinding, and sugar cravings common among users. I winced as I scrolled through a hundred images to see if the mouths pictured looked like Joe’s. Most were more severe, blackened and corroded to nubs. But some looked just like his: yellowed and truncated, as if two millimeters had been razed off the bottoms. Joe went to rehab when he was 22, and when he finished, he got beautiful new teeth. He had a job in marketing. He had dental insurance. He had a healthy, bright smile which he began to offer more generously, and which I liked to look at. From then on, I thought he was clean of hard drugs. When he relapsed, I didn’t allow his drug use to be part of my vision. When, in the nine years that followed, he presented signs of use—when he was groggy midday, and irritable; when his pupils eclipsed the blue in his eyes—I didn’t ask questions. I was afraid to seem accusing, and to rupture whatever rapport we were developing. I didn’t know enough about the habits of addicts to be sure I was seeing the signs. Perhaps I didn’t want my suspicions proved; what would I do with the truth in view? The winter before he died, my mother sent me a photo of Joe’s heel. It was swollen up through the ankle, pale and bitten with tiny scabs. “Taking Joe to the ER to have his foot checked,” she wrote. I shuddered and wrote back, “Yikes.” The doctor diagnosed it as cellulitis, a common bacterial infection. After Joe died, my mother and I read that some heroin users shoot up into their feet to hide the marks. Cellulitis is common among addicts who use needles. “That’s when we really started to worry about him,” Joe’s friend told us that summer. “When he started using needles.” Meanwhile, I had been blind, and was blindsided. 4. “It seems to me as if the world were spinning around in the light and wind and laughter,” writes Mary Cabot, “and God just stretched down His hand one morning and put it out.” Grief has a way of dimming the lights, and draining the sunrise of its color. “The days usually look so long and blank at the beginning, that I can hardly make up my mind to step out into them,” writes Mary. She sees blank days; she hears “the dull music of the rain.” Where she might have seen abundance, she now sees violence: “a cold wind was bruising the apple-buds.” According to the logic of the objective correlative, our emotions inform what we see and how we see it: “Something is the matter with the sunsets.” In bereavement, I learned that what I see also informs my emotions, shaping my expectations and my moral understanding of the world. This is vision’s feedback loop. Sometimes it needs to be interrupted. The morning after Joe died, my cousins brought croissants from our family’s favorite bakery, a French-Vietnamese patisserie in South Philly. When I finally woke and descended the bewildering staircase, I reached into the paper bag and tore a quarter of an almond croissant. It was the perfect croissant—sweet, brittle at the corners and otherwise tender, buttered between layers so that each could be peeled and savored. I took one bite. I knew then that it would be a long time before I could eat food like this, its beauty incongruous with our stark and gruesome loss. It didn’t make sense to eat croissants. It didn’t make sense to drink summer cocktails, or to wear lace sundresses, or to laugh. Croissants were brittle, cocktails bitter, and lace was full of holes. Laughter was an incision in my gut, foreign and cold. Holding a newborn, touching his puckered chin in the hospital the day after a friend’s labor, only reminded me of all that my mother had lost. It made sense only to behold my brother. We gathered photographs for his funeral. We folded and unfolded his clothing, studying his style. We listened to his music. We spoke to his friends. They came to my mother’s house or met her downtown for coffee. They told her how they loved his big goofy grin; they told her what they knew about his drug use. We asked them questions, and we read and read and learned all that we could about how to buy heroin, how to use it, its impact on the body. It took 16 weeks for the Philadelphia Medical Examiner to report that heroin, fentanyl, and amphetamines had been in his system when he died. While we waited, Mom and I lined up each piece of evidence to make sense of his death—the vomit on the couch behind his slouched body, the phone log reporting a quick visit to a friend around noon, the empty baggies in his wallet. We watched videos of people using heroin. We read about the opioid crisis in Philly’s Kensington neighborhood, about the needles that littered the sidewalks and stoops. I scrolled four months back in the log of messages from my mother to find the image of Joe’s swollen heel. I winced, and fixed my gaze. My husband wondered when I’d stop reading addiction memoirs, and when I’d stop the late-night phone calls with Joe’s friends. It was morose to dwell on these stories, he worried. But it was what I needed. To look upon my brother’s life, to see what he saw, was an impulse of love, come too late. It was all I could do to connect with Joe, to understand him, to say “I see you” now that he’d vanished. Looking upon his life and death, I came to see what he may have seen: That surprise can come not like a lit balloon but like a wildfire. That entropy, and not abundance, is physical law. 5. The Gates Ajar is a book about the slow rise of hope on a bleak horizon. Mary is inconsolable after learning of her brother’s death. Soon, she receives a visit from her Aunt Winifred, a young widow, already gray, who has thought very much about death. At Winifred’s arrival, Mary remarks, “A little arrow of light has just cut the gray gloom of the West.” The women pass hours over a summer talking about Roy, wondering with increasing hope about life after death. As their conversation progresses, Mary is able again to bear the sight and sound and smell of beauty. She hears the chatter of children “chiming down the hall like bells.” The wind, which had choked her, now sweeps “like somebody’s strong arms over the flowers, and gathers up a crowd of perfumes that wander up and down” around her. Not only can she tolerate laughter, she can see it, as Winifred’s daughter laughs out “like the splash of a little wave.” It is hope in the transfigured body that changes Mary’s vision. At first, she’s terrified that she’ll never see her brother again. But Winifred speaks of heaven in a way Mary’s never heard before. She quotes Saint Paul, saying that the human body, once dead, is “‘raised in incorruption.’ ‘It is raised in glory.’ ‘It is raised in power.’” Rather than picturing an afterlife in which people are unrecognizable wisps of spirit, these women imagine that the dead indwell the very bodies they bore in their lives, only luminous, healed, “free from all the distortion of guilt.” With this vision, Mary believes that one day she will embrace her brother again. One mystery of transfiguration perplexes Mary: Even in their radiance, these bodies as Winifred imagines them do not lack the scars of their lifetime. Free of pain, their skin remembers pain. “Why remember it?” Mary wonders. “Save but to swell the sense of being blest,” Winifred answers. “Besides, forgetfulness of the disagreeable things of this life implies forgetfulness of the pleasant ones. They are all tangled together.” Two years have passed since I held Joe’s cold hands in my mother’s living room. The dim days of grief have passed. Again, I can laugh. Again, I can peel the buttery layers of a pastry and savor each ribbon on my tongue. But croissants will always remind me of the morning after Joe died. A Negroni with peeled orange curling over the rim will take me to the summer that I couldn’t drink, when drinking was too celebratory a gesture for so solemn a season. I can bear to see beauty, to taste and to smell it, but it’s tangled now with a realistic burden of the pain that my brother bore—that many around me bear still. When Joe died, an old way of seeing needed to be put to death. In time, a new way of seeing would arise, transfigured. Joe’s vision carried within my own, I sense I am closer to the molten center of reality, and already I feel I am being transformed. Image: Flickr/Rusty Clark
I received the call late on a Saturday night. I live in Europe, far from my home in the U.S., so receiving a call from my mother at 10 p.m. my time (1 p.m. her time) was never unusual. But when the tone of her voice on the other line was a distinct “Hi,” choking the usual sing-songy enthusiasm to follow, I felt a lump in my throat. “They found your dad,” she said, “He’s gone.” I then immediately collapsed into my wife’s arms. After a night of sobbing and pacing, I managed to fall asleep. The next day, I found odd ways to cope: I rewatched funny YouTube videos in order to escape from reality. I watched old detective shows that would normally keep my mind occupied and soothe my anxieties. Following a few messy, stumbling phone calls from friends and family, I found myself unable to carry my own bones through this particular loss. I don’t have a religion or god to fall back on. I turned my back on that as a teenager, and ever since, I’ve managed so far to find peace in music, poetry, and philosophy. Metaphors about death and grief are a dime a dozen; you’ll find plenty of words that are, as I discovered, virtually helpful to no one—“all that lives must die” (Shakespeare), or “death doesn’t change us more than life” (Dickens). Once I found myself confronting the complexity of grief, tepid words from my literary heroes didn’t seem to do the heavy lifting I originally hoped for. Another famous literary phrase that comes to mind when we think of death is “So it goes.” This is, of course, the quasi-absurdist response found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, given after every instance of death in the novel (a novel about World War II, so you can imagine it happens quite a lot). Although this phrase is hardly a comfort, it bespeaks the way I had always approached death—sometimes scratching my head, sometimes with cynicism, and sometimes with a shrug. What happened during the grieving period wasn’t so much answer-seeking. I wasn’t cursing the heavens, kneeling in the dust and beating my breast, asking, “Why, God, why?” Instead, I found myself wondering how I could simply exist comfortably anymore. How can I act kindly toward others, when I felt nothing but anger? How can I avoid blaming the world and the people around him for taking him away from me? I then remembered what Vonnegut once said to a group of students at Case Western Reserve University. After asking what life is all about, he delivers the answer: “We are here to help each other get through this thing … whatever it is.” This short phrase seemed to solidify for me something I was missing: a philosophy of life that, in its lightness and simplicity, told me exactly what I ached for during the grieving period and epitomized the type of person I should aspire to be. This echoes, as well, the beautiful phrase Malachi Constant utters in The Sirens of Titan: “The true purpose of life, no matter who is in control, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” It’s no secret that Vonnegut was not religious. A self-described humanist, Vonnegut became the American Humanist Association’s honorary president in the early ’90s, succeeding Isaac Asimov in what he described as a “completely functionless capacity.” In the short text God Bless You Doctor Kevorkian, originally read as a radio broadcast, he says, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead.” Vonnegut, though, didn’t seem to have the acute hostility toward religion that one expects from us atheists, especially today. I share, in fact, his fascination with and affinity for the anodyne symbols, imagery, and comforts that people find in religion. This idea comes through full-force in his novel Cat’s Cradle. The novel depicts the story of Jonah, a writer whose growing fascination with the scientists involved in the atomic bomb leads him first to meeting the children of a famous physicist, then eventually to the fictional island San Lorenzo. The novel reflects a uniquely blended critique of both religion and science. “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be based on lies,” Jonah says in one of the beginning chapters, “will be unable to understand this book.” The significant part of this passage isn’t the “based on lies” part—rather the word “useful.” Useful things that make life bearable can nevertheless be based on lies. The name for this, according to Vonnegut in a later collection, is “Foma”—“harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls”. Scientists, on the other hand, are not depicted favorably in the novel. While science as such might engender a curiosity with and concern for truth, often enough the human cost has been cast to the wayside. The same people who gave us efficient means to connect with one another also gave us efficient means to blow each other up. While Jonah is interviewing Dr. Asa Breed—the supervisor to the (fictional) Nobel Prize-winning physicist Felix Hoenikker—she defensively replies to his questions, “All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.” Jonah’s reply: “That’s putting it quite strongly.” The point is that, while religions derive from fictions and lies, they nevertheless bring peace and comfort. They do make us perform silly rituals and spout meaningless mantras, imparting false assurances through fanciful stories. But these alone hardly harm anyone. Science, by contrast, with the hubristic pursuit for technological advancement, has a track record of grave human consequences—the expression of which we can find in such catastrophes as, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other such nuclear disasters. When my father died, he was alone. At the time of his death, an illness which controlled much of his life ultimately led him to collapse on his bedroom floor. It wasn’t until his brother called for a welfare check that he was discovered in his house. Alone. Probably dead for a few days. So it goes. Although I have some idea of what his last moments were like, I still don’t have clarity. What I do fear, and what causes me the most pain, is the realization that he must have been so afraid. He wasn’t ready to die. Not then. Throughout his life, my father was a man of little complication. He grew up in a middle-class family in the Midwest. He came close to joining the Naval Academy, but then instead moved to New York in his early 20s to become an accountant. When I was growing up, my father had a light touch about him—an openness and willingness to laugh that was utterly contagious. My sister and I never had to be extraordinary, and it was almost impossible to disappoint him. My parents divorced when I was a teenager. In the years since, I saw my father go through more divorces, setbacks, and job lay-offs. During my adolescence and into adulthood, I witnessed his losing battle with his body. I watched him sink even deeper into alcoholism while the cirrhosis slowly took his liver, his mind, and then his life. At his memorial, my sister and I both read eulogies. She went first, and I followed. After telling a few stories about my dad and even making a few jokes at his expense, I read a passage from Cat’s Cradle. In the novel, the people of San Lorenzo follow the fictional religion of Bokononism. And when their dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is on his deathbed, Dr. von Koenigswald arrives to deliver the last rites of Bokononism. It’s a prayer that beautifully expresses gratitude toward life and beauty, and to me, it stood as the perfect way to end a eulogy. Although it’s originally written with two voices, with “Papa” repeating each line, I cut out the second voice and read it more as if it’s a singular prayer: God made mud. God got lonesome. So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!" "See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars." And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud. I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done. Nice going, God. Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn't have. I feel very unimportant compared to You. The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn't even get to sit up and look around. I got so much, and most mud got so little. Thank you for the honor! Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep. What memories for mud to have! What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met! I loved everything I saw! Good night. I will go to heaven now. I can hardly wait... To find out for certain what my wampeter was... And who was in my karass... And all the good things our karass did for you. Amen. I concluded my eulogy with this, crying through the line, “thank you for the honor!” (I also skipped over the last three lines about “wampeter” and “karass”—other Vonnegut-isms for aspects of religiosity.) For weeks after my father died, I realized that these lines were helping me cope with his death. Because I don’t know what my father’s last words were—or if he even had any final words—I continue to read these lines as if my father said them to himself. I know full well that this is false (not least because, as far as I know, my father never read Vonnegut), and I don’t convince myself that it’s true. Rather, imagining that my father loved everything he saw, and that he felt it such an honor to be alive, is consistent with the man he was and the life he wanted. As for me, reinterpreting his final moments with the Bokononist prayer may be a falsehood, may be a lie; in fact, it’s a foma—a harmless untruth meant to comfort my simple soul. Image: Flickr/Seabamirum
Never curse a slow elevator. Like a book or a song, it may offer lessons in grace or about growing older with truth and dignity. I was once on an aging contraption wheezing its way from floor one to two … to six, when the unobstructed honesty of a child under age 7 and a person over age 70 was revealed. Following long contemplation entirely void of self-consciousness, a young boy accompanied by his mother asked the elderly woman sharing our ride, “Why are you wearing a mask?” She, a ballet company director whose lined face grew even more wrinkled as she bent forward and smiled, answered with a gentleness that defied what I knew was her usual habit—of shouting maniacally at dancers whose failed pirouettes or bent arabesque legs she took as personal insults. “I am not wearing a mask,” she crooned. “I’m just very, very old.” The boy eyed his mother, perhaps wondering when her face, too, would turn into a map grooved by time, regret, smiles, the sun’s rays. He regarded the older woman, this time not staring, but actively, his eyes exploring each nook and cranny of her face. Accommodatingly, she remained nearly nose-to-nose. “It’s a very, very nice old,” he said at last. The woman straightened her spine, pleased a misconception had been shed and at the compliment. I, the observer, admired the straight-speaking pair and the care of their slow-paced exchange. Taking that lesson into the literary world, childlike wonder, adult wisdom, and good humor are never lost in the work of two wordsmiths: Ursula K. Le Guin and Donald Hall. These artists died in 2018. The only comforts are found in the works they leave behind. In addition to Le Guin’s poems, essays, book reviews, nonfiction, fantasy and award-winning science fiction novels (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Earthsea Cycle series and more), she, in her last years, wrote blog posts. A marvelous collection, No Time to Spare (December 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was inspired by Le Guin’s reading of The Notebook, Portuguese writer José Saramago’s blog-turned-book. No Time to Spare divides into four sections interrupted by blogs about Pard, her cat. “The Annals of Pard” serve at the most superficial level as respite—breathers from what are mild to heavy duty miniature essays on “Going Over Eighty,” The Lit Biz,” Trying to Make Sense of It,” and “Rewards.” Read deeply (to read Le Guin any other way is foolishness), the storytelling swings with signature humor and forthrightness from territorial battles with a feline to self-reflective wrestling or victories involving beliefs, curses, music and not writing “the great American novel.” Throughout, mortality (Le Guin’s eventual and that of a very dead mouse) rattles and moans or ironically, affirms Le Guin’s childlike vitality upon reaching eight decades of life. Among the essays, “The Diminished Thing” defines fortunate aging as retaining intellectual, practical and emotional vigor and gaining extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding. Aged intelligence, she writes, is recognizable and “if you have the sense of a bean sprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.” Relatedly, “Catching Up, Ha Ha,” written on the eve of Le Guin’s 85th birthday, protests the idea “that anyone over seventy-five who isn’t continuously and conspicuously alive is liable to be considered dead.” Confronting PR people, tired teachers and lazy students who might wish for the author to identify if not produce “the great American novel,” Le Guin asks, “Who cares?” Art, she later states in “TGAN Again,” is not “a horse race” and literature is not an Olympic competition. If every essay does not hit with equal thrust, it’s impossible to overlook the craft behind the writing itself. The language on occasion is deliberately polemic, edgy and rhythmically irregular, but rarely preachy. Combining craft and profound content, there are “Belief in Belief” and a double-header on the music of Philip Glass and John Luther Adams. Le Guin constructs deep philosophical arguments over the misuse of one word in the former and captures the lyricism and rapture of a live performance in the latter’s few hundred words. It’s no easy task, but Le Guin makes it appear so. Going over 80 with Le Guin is wondrous. Reincarnation would be a fine belief to have, but short of that, thank goodness Le Guin’s books are immortal. [millions_ad] Hall died in June 2018 at age 89. Foreswearing poetry in 2010, he continued to write and live in his New Hampshire farm. A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety (July 2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) chronicles Hall’s exploits on the cusp of becoming a nonagenarian. Like his Essays After Eighty, the new collection offers the many pleasures of reading Hall: song-like phrasing, quick wit mixed with anger that rides a bitter border but never plunges into mean-spiritedness or hate. There’s raw emotion and vulnerability, especially discoverable in confessions related to loss, professional envy, and essays in which he engages in self-loathing or laughing-at-self over his aging physique. Hall’s protests are more subtle but equal to Le Guin’s. From the opening essay: “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you.” And there are victorious proclamations: “As I write toward my nineties I shed my skin. I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume, and remember.” From 1957 to 1975, Hall was an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan. In Ann Arbor, he met poet and student Jane Kenyon. Eventually, they married and in 1975 moved to Eagle Pond Farm. (A delight in Carnival is the 119-word essay “Dictaters,” which involves the farm’s name. Even the spell-check generation will appreciate the typo-angle and will not object to its short, internet-era length.) Hall often wrote about his life with Kenyon before and after her death in 1995 due to leukemia. Her work and death serve as an underlying touchpoint in essays on selected poets and absolutely in “Necropoetics,” a chapter about resuming his poetry after her death. “In the months and years after her death, Jane’s voice and mine rose as one, spiraling together the images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the unforgivable absence of flesh.” As always in the work of Hall, shadowy nostalgia, tender personal memories, and a deep love of things old and slow, like baseball, uplift. A reader who might otherwise become morose is therefore comforted by the stories’ underlying warmth. Hope steeped in truth arrives in the book’s final essays, “Way Way Down, Way Way Up” and “Tree Day.” As it is with Le Guin, Hall acknowledges that “emotional intricacy and urgency of human life expresses itself most fiercely through contradiction.” Messy human life and vulnerability exists in the fold: In the skin of a newborn or in old age wrinkles, in skewed or straightforward perspectives, in honest words plainly spoken. I was thinking about artists and aging when I learned the great Aretha Franklin had died all too early at age 76. Franklin, for many of us, changed the significance and meaning of the words “think” and “respect.” The song, “Think,” was written by Franklin and is both a protest and declaration on freedom. Her emphatic version of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, based on Otis Redding’s original song, erects seven letter-size monuments that add up to dignity. The power of Franklin's words changed and changes hearts and human behavior, as did and do Le Guin’s or Hall’s finely written phrases and sentences. So the next time you’re on a slow-moving elevator, don’t curse; take a moment to think. Speak to and respect the people riding along, regardless of age, gender, facial wrinkles, or other classifications. And on the chance that elevator gets stuck between floors, carry a book by Le Guin or Hall or hum a Franklin tune to pass the time. Image: Flickr/Gwydion M. Williams
One of the pleasures of reading critic and fiction writer Yahya Haqqi’s essays in Arabic is that I am always astonished by the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his experience, the nimbleness of his mind and his eloquence. In the collection Crying, Then Smiling, he has a number of eulogies, one of which is for his uncle, Mahmoud Taher Haqqi, who wrote the first Egyptian novel, The Maidens of Denshawi, about the tragedy of Denshawi in 1906 where British soldiers carelessly killed a villager while they were shooting pigeons—the incident ended tragically when villagers were rounded up and executed by the British. Haqqi points out that it was the first novel to focus on fellaheen, peasants, and their problems and opened the way for Mohamed Hussein Haykal’s novel, Zeyneb (1913). Haqqi wrote that his heart trembled when he read The Maidens of Denshawi—which is what good stories should bring about. Haqqi deserves a eulogy, much like the ones he so generously wrote for others, about his place in Egyptian literary heritage. This seems appropriate in light of the recent celebration of the classic black and white film Al-Bostagy, or The Postman, directed by Husayn Kamal (1968), featuring Shukry Sarhan, based on Haqqi’s novella. But one cannot write about this poignant film without mentioning Sabri Moussa, the talented novelist who translated the spirit of Yahya Haqqi’s novella into a suspenseful screenplay. (He also wrote the screenplay for Yahya Haqqi’s Om Hashem’s Lamp.) Sabri Moussa, who died recently, January 2018, deserves a eulogy as well for his film scripts, short fiction, and novels—the unusual sci-fi tale The Man Arrived from the Spinach Field, the mythic fable Seeds of Corruption, and Half-Meter Incident. Interior monologues so crucial to building a psychological portrait of a character in fiction have to be handled differently in film, another genre. Much of Yahya Haqqi’s novella The Postman relies upon the interior monologues of the male hero, the postman, Abbas, and the thoughts of Gameela, the young girl who has fallen in love with a young man named Khaleel who promises to marry her. The isolation of the postman is shown through the scenes where he is sitting alone in the dusty, decrepit house he is renting—steaming open the letters while alone drinking cheap booze and reading about the romance of Gameela and Khaleel, or even riding his donkey to deliver the mail. An educated Cairene, he cannot relate to the people in the village and feels he has been banished to Mars. Moussa also added certain scenes to the screenplay that were not present in the novel to augment dramatic tension linked to sexuality in a village in upper Egypt in the ’40s. For instance, the servant girl who is raped by Gameela’s father is taken away by her relatives and will certainly be killed. Abbas invites a Romani woman to his house and she is almost murdered by a mob. Both of these scenes foreshadow the murder of the young girl Gameela when her father discovers she is pregnant. At the end of the novel, Abbas hears the church bell toll for someone who has died, but Haqqi, the author, does not state explicitly that it is Gameela who has died—that is left ambiguous. However, in the screenplay, Moussa added a scene of the father carrying his daughter’s corpse through the village after he has killed her. The addition of this extra scene is reminiscent of King Lear carrying his daughter Cordelia in his arms: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?” However, this is the antithesis of the scene in King Lear since Gameela’s father intended to kill her to save the family’s honor—the price is still dear. The mother trails behind, wailing. The Egyptian classic The Postman reminds me of the 1954 film thriller Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and featuring Grace Kelly and James Stewart. James Stewart plays a photographer with a broken leg who cannot move—he sits at his apartment window in New York City, watching his neighbors. At first, it is entertainment. The game becomes dangerous when the killer realizes he is being watched—and stalks the photographer and his lovely girlfriend. The lonely postman who resides in a village town in upper Egypt alleviates his boredom by reading the letters of the villagers and then stumbles upon the letters of two young lovers and their secrets. The photographer also stumbles upon a deadly secret: His neighbor has killed his wife, cut up her body, and crammed it into a trunk. Abbas in The Postman realizes that Gameela, the unmarried young girl, has committed herself too wholeheartedly to a feckless, immature lover. Pregnant, she is in danger of being killed for dishonoring the family, yet Abbas is helpless to save her. Both men are isolated bachelors who entertain themselves by spying on their neighbors. Despite the fact that one story is set in America in the ’50s, the other in an Egyptian village in the ’40s, they both focus on the universal themes of solitude, voyeurism, and disorientation. We may think we know our neighbors, but often are surprised. Unfortunately, the novels of many exceptional writers are not known to a wide audience unless their works are adapted to film. At the same time, the revival of The Postman on its Golden Jubilee recently in Cairo can inspire viewers to return to his written word.
1. He walked into the room, leaning hard on a cane, and hung his leather jacket on the back of his chair. He was big at the middle; buttons on his sweater vest hung tough across his belly, and he wore a T-shirt under his vest, which I thought was funny. He pulled a stack of papers from his briefcase and flapped it on the table in front of him, taking one copy then sliding the stack to his left. We all took a copy. It was a one-sided photocopied syllabus that looked like it was originally punched on a typewriter. He looked down at the sheet in front of him; white tufts of hair surrounded his dome like a Julius Caesar wreath. He cleared his throat. “Hi, I’m John Goulet. You can call me John.” He recited this and the following syllabus like he had a thousand times. His voice was dynamic—calm sometimes, gravelly or squeaky. The entire syllabus covered just one side of the page. It was a schedule, a reading list and a warning not to be late. He wouldn't be posting online or spending much time on email. The objective of the class was simple: for the students to read and talk about stories, to put words down on the page and to ask questions. He had rules: Don’t talk about movies or television, and don’t say, “This isn't really my thing, but...” Which made sense to me. The stories we workshopped were rarely anyone’s “thing.” John was funny. His hands and face were always chapped. He wore a mustache under a round nose and glasses that made his eyes small. Every so often he would pull his glasses off and polish the lenses on his shirt but continue talking, effortlessly, like he was repeating lines from a play he’d acted a thousand times but still loved. At the end of class, John said, “OK. Tear off half a sheet. It doesn't even have to be half a sheet! Write something about yourself, what you’d like me to know about you.” It was a raw time. I had an infant son named Theodor and had just finished a two-year stint at the U.S. Cellular store downtown. On that day in the classroom, it had been two years since I stepped foot in Curtain Hall, a cement building, too brutal for brutalism, a couple blocks from Lake Michigan on the UWM campus. I had dropped out of school twice already. I couldn't quit again. At 29 years old, I had to make something work. I was a part of things in Milwaukee. I played in a band. I directed music videos and my film, Heavy Hands, had premiered the year before at the Raindance Film Festival in London. After Theodor was born, things changed. I lost touch with a lot of old friends (which I didn't understand), and my band kicked me out (which I did). So on the first day of school, I was just returning to the world. I felt far from my goals and alien. I wrote: My name is Sean. I have a baby son. I’ve been away. I’m excited to be here. 2. Workshop is funny. You don’t know what is helpful or what anyone is saying much of the time, but you read the story, say some things, and try to work it out. Some of us talked; some of us showed off; some of us missed the point entirely. John nodded along like he had a million times before, sometimes holding his cane over his lap, sometimes drinking coffee. At the end of critique John would hold the story in front of him and look on it like it was a photo. “Well, we have some interesting characters. The fire at the beginning is captivating, but some of us were wondering if the metaphor really worked by the end. Overall, some really nice imagery—grammar is a fixable problem. Would the writer like to say a few words?” The previously anonymous writer would step in. We would all nod, and John would tell us what we needed for the next week, satisfaction in his voice that we learned something. Then he’d say, “OK. Thank you, everyone.” We’d leave: to the bus, to the union Burger King, to another class in another building, to the library, to our houses just off campus. John would walk slowly to the elevator, pushing on his cane, then across the windy parking lot where he would lower himself into his car. 3. Twice a semester, John held conferences in his office on one of the top floors of Curtain Hall. It was a nice office. Carpeted with full bookshelves. It wasn't like other offices, where books slid onto the floor, where wastebaskets overflowed with paper coffee cups, where The Far Side comics were crookedly tacked to the wall. It was simple and clean with two long picture windows overlooking Downer Avenue, the long grey of the lake and the wall of bursting yellow, orange, and red trees that stood between the two. It was the most beautiful view. Cars moved down the street, students across the sidewalk. I had lived in Milwaukee for 10 years and never imagined a life that peaceful. During most conferences, I would remark on the view and, for a few moments, space out, hungover or exhausted because I stayed out late with my friends from the restaurant, or because I got up early with my son—usually both. I had stopped working at the cellphone store and got a job waiting tables, but I felt more trapped than ever. Bills were stacking up. I was unreasonably annoyed by my girlfriend, Heather, and son. I had plans before any of this happened: Alaska, Colombia, Colorado, Argentina—somewhere! But I couldn't do that now! Now I was just some dope in a classroom, and any chance I had was gone; I had accidentally kicked it off a cliff! What was going to happen— “Sean, are you OK?” John asked. “Yes.” I looked back from the window. “OK. I was saying your story is good. It's funny. The main character is compelling and believable. Have you ever thought about applying to grad school?” “Um, yeah. I was kind of taking it one day at a time.” “OK. There are some good ones out there. I went to Iowa 40 years ago. I don’t know anyone there now, but I think that’s a very good program. You don’t want to go just anywhere. But I could write a letter for you.” One of John’s books, Oh’s Profit, was behind a glass case next to the elevator on the fourth floor. The copy was old and the cover was fading. Other works by other faculty members were in the glass case, too, much newer, like they could have been placed yesterday. “I think you have what it takes, but who knows,” John said. I had been thinking of going to grad school. I thought the book I was working on, a first-person narrative about a new father working in a cellphone store in Milwaukee and suffering from apocalyptic dreams, had some legs. “I’ll think about it.” John had a way of casually motivating me. I would leave those meetings feeling lifted and head to the cafeteria for a popcorn-chicken wrap before taking the bus home. 4. I crammed out a draft of the book in the year we worked together, and when I emailed John over the summer, he said he was being forced/forcing himself into retirement. He explained it in his usual noncommittal, nonvindictive way. “Well, they don’t have a spot for me this semester. I was only teaching the one night class as it was, and I don’t know how much longer I want to do that anyway.” Heather got a day job, so I watched Theodor all day. In the summer when I didn't have class, I would walk for hours with him in the stroller. Sometimes I sang to him so he would nap; sometimes we would go to the library or ice cream parlor. In the grass at Humboldt park, he would toddle on the hill in grass-stained overalls, long blond hair tumbling on the wind. Theodor would laugh and fall. I would give him crackers and juice and listen to Stephen King books on tape or podcasts about Charles Manson. Most days I didn't talk to anyone. Unless John bought me lunch at Harry’s on Oakland. Then, sometimes, I’d tell him about my family, how I was laying off booze. Sometimes, I’d tell him I was having another child, and we’d drink bourbon. John would laugh, wearing short-sleeved breezy button ups. The front windows on the restaurant open. Sometimes, he was the best friend I had. John paid me to do a read on his new novel, a captivating but messy noir about a private detective in New Haven. I figured the job was more about helping me out, but he seemed genuinely pleased with my thorough notes. We would talk about teaching. He told me that teaching made his life better, though he hadn't planned to do it very long. He met friends through teaching. “Like you,” he’d gesture, which always made me feel good. A couple times, he told me how when he taught James Joyce; he’d say, “You know I love Joyce and I’ve taught Joyce a hundred times over the years. That’s not half bad.” He was how I imagined old writers to be, and as our friendship grew, I found myself trying to mimic his attitudes, his occasional defeatism, only to have him wave me off, stating: that I was a nut job, that I had my whole life ahead of me, my whole career ahead of me, and I should get on with it. [millions_ad] 5. Once, I brought my family to his house for dinner. He also invited another writer, another former student, Chris Fink, and his family. We sat on the back patio area, and John’s wife Susan got us drinks while we talked about school, writing, and we stayed a long while like that. Theodor and Chris’s daughter playing in the yard. John and Susan told us about Susan’s granddaughter, who they would talk to on Skype. Chris was John’s student in the ’90s and John told me I would like him and his work, and I did. They talked about people from the old days. I think they were wilder back then, more drinking, more carrying on. I imagined, in the days after the dinner, what those classes were like. John sitting at the head of the table in the same room in Curtain. Who else had John taught? Who else remembered him? 6. Before he was really sick, I visited John in a hospital room. He emailed me the day before my visit and asked me to bring a handle of bourbon, which I ignored. John was in rehab after a knee surgery. I brought my equipment to record his story, “The Drowning Bear.” The story was from a collection John was trying to have published, so far without luck, and was about a man coming across a bear that had fallen through the ice. The man thinks he recognizes the bear from his dreams years ago. I held a microphone just under John’s chin as he read the story propped up in his hospital bed. He read the story perfectly by the third take. If people just listened to this story and how he read it, I thought, his collection would be published, no problem. We talked for a while, and he read the new intro to his novel out loud. I gave him some pages I was working on. This was what we had. We were writers. We were friends. “Did you bring the bourbon?” “No. I did not. It’s important to me you live. But it’s more important that I’m not the one that kills you,” I said. 7. Three years after I met John, I moved to New York City with Heather, Theodor, and a new baby, Sawyer. I emailed with John; we stayed in touch. Then, for a couple months, I didn't hear from him. I emailed to see how he was doing, how the newest draft of his noir was going. A few weeks later he responded. John had stage 4 throat cancer and a few months to live. He asked me to do another pass on his book. I said, “Yes, of course.” We talked on the phone and he sounded good, in better spirits than I expected. “They are going to try this chemotherapy. The doctor says it will be a miracle if it works. So I guess that’s what I have going for me.” “Fuck, that sucks.” “Yeah, it’s crummy.” We both laughed. What could we say? John sent presents for my kids on Christmas. 8. The last time I talked to John, he sounded faint, far off and beaten. I was driving an old mail van full of restaurant supplies from Bushwick to Park Slope for work. It was dark and cold as the old van beat down broken streets, side to side. The van smelled like gasoline. I had one earphone bud in, and though John’s voice was weak, he was right there in my ear. “It’s not what you want to be doing. You want your life, your freedom,” John said. I felt like he was warning me not to die. There were no jokes this time. “If it means anything, I’ll make sure your book is right.” “I want that. I want you to do that.” We both hung up, and I knew that was it. 9. I sent John an email and got a reply from his wife. John is no longer responsive, the email said. I talk to his son on the phone; John is in hospice, out of consciousness much of the time, he said. It won’t be long. I checked the internet for an obituary. I wished a dumb wish—that he would turn it around. I saw him, skinny probably, his throat invaded, his body invaded by a sickness that seemingly takes us all. I wished he wasn't dying. Even when I accepted he was dying, I thought there was time. I never believed it would come. We always assume the world will wait for us. We look forward to our best moment, when we’ll really see someone and share something. We’re unaware that our best moments have already happened: former students and teacher sharing drinks, recording stories at a rehab center, Reubens at Harry’s, talking in an office with a beautiful view. Now that John is gone, I know how sweet that moment really was, watching the wind twirl tops of Autumn trees from his window, lost in a fretful daydream about fatherhood, about the unexpected turn my life had taken, as John tried to tell me something. John Goulet was the author of two novels and many short stories. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and taught creative writing at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.
Wandering the aisles made of beige steel and unrememberable carpet that was the poetry section of my local suburban library, I waited for poetry to come to me. What arrived was The Painted Bed, a collection by Donald Hall. I could’ve opened it to any poem. The title poem. “After Three Years” or “Kill the Day,” maybe. It was an unraveling, the first time I had witnessed language bearing the pain that lives in the wake of immense loss with such incisive vulnerability. I checked it out and consumed the whole thing immediately. I was 17. A decade away from that moment, Donald Hall is now dead. The event that consumed so much of his writing has now arrived for him. From the earliest poems—the ones written during his first marriage and the years spent teaching before his second, great marriage to the poet Jane Kenyon—it was a nagging subject. Death haunted his poems from his returning to the ancestral farm with Kenyon, a purposeful separation from the world of the academy, through his long and happy hermitage until his diagnosis with cancer, which he survived, and then Kenyon’s diagnosis with leukemia, which she did not. The poems after that, until Hall turned 80 and decided he no longer had the capacity for poetry, are absolutely steeped in it. Saying that Hall was some kind of apostle of grief is to mischaracterize him, though. There were many Donald Halls. There was the early Hall, first poetry editor of The Paris Review and poetry anthologizer of particular staunchness who ensured the ongoing legacy of the greats who stood just behind him like T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. In his early years, Hall wanted to impose his taste upon the poetry world at large, fiercely advocating for contemporary poetry, with a particular fondness for poets like Geoffrey Hill and Thom Gunn, even as writers outside of the nation’s universities were creating poetry in their own image. There was the Donald Hall that left the world of higher education to wholly dedicate himself to his ancestral New Hampshire farm, where his attention was upon the daily devotion to his now-hallowed relationship with Jane Kenyon and his writing. Though present throughout his early poetry, the focus of his writing sharpened onto themes of grief, lingering and ever-present in the ghostly shadow of Mount Kearsarge—a place where the spirits of the past seemed to mingle with the heat of the living, and desire, as the long-blooming flower of Hall’s deep affection for Kenyon grew along with her own career as a poet as it eventually eclipsed his own. Then there was Donald Hall, alone. The final third of his career was almost entirely defined by absence. His own miraculous cancer survival moved nearly immediately into Kenyon’s leukemia diagnosis, her dying, and her death. The elegiac qualities moved from the tinged shadows of his work and onto the main stage, consuming it as he chronicled the slow descent into the valley of a Jane-less life and his long wait there. The other Donald Halls—the baseball writer, the poet laureate, the endless correspondent—revolved in peripheral moons around the great preoccupations of his life. It’s tempting, at the end of his long life, to simply take the memory of Hall and quietly place him in the corral labeled “Pastoral Poets.” In the wake of his death, many have eulogized him while confining him there. Though Ted Kooser and Wendell Berry may have some shared images with him, Hall’s writing on his roots, the landscape of New Hampshire, and the people who populate his world were much darker and deeper, much stranger than what can simply and neatly be patted on the head and deemed pastoral meditation. His writing is much more aptly compared to his forebear, T.S. Eliot, or the fellow native New England poet Elizabeth Bishop than to his rural contemporaries. What makes Donald Hall a remarkable poet, what assures him a lasting place in an American literature that looks much different from when he began to edit The Paris Review or his purposeful anthologies, was his dedication to honesty. This sounds banal to state, but to read Hall, from the very beginning right up until the end, is to watch a writer grow into a kind of honest and forthright form. The way Hall laid bare and excavated the guts of humanity, ripping wide open the tepid surface of the most conservative annexes of society to reveal how it all dripped with raging grief and aching desire was, and remains, profound. As a writer, he seemed to really take to heart the words the sculptor Henry Moore once said to him, quoting Rodin as he quoted a craftsman: “Never think of a surface except as the extension of a volume.” An important part of his dedication to honesty was that it demanded humor, and Hall’s was wry and midnight dark. In the poem “Letter with No Address,” one of his many odes to life after Kenyon’s death, he describes yet another day of crushing grief, and he ends on this image: “Sometimes, coming back home / to our circular driveway, / I imagine you’ve returned / before me, bags of groceries upright / in the back of the Saab, / its trunk lid delicately raised / as if proposing an encounter, / dog-fashion, with the Honda.” Hall was a master at this, disorienting an entire poem to crushing ends with apparent glee, but to a purposeful end. As he says in another poem nearby: “Lust is grief / that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.” Donald Hall is now, after it all, the posthumous Donald Hall. He is now the deceased Donald Hall, as he so looked forward to being in many poems. He’s now, if not with his beloved Jane Kenyon, at least no longer in a world without her. Only the words they wrote are left behind, breathing without them. Several years before his death, long after Hall stopped actively writing poetry, he published what would be the final collection of his poems before his death. For a constant, lifelong editor of his own work, this is a far more monumental and immutable work than any that preceded it (particularly the door-stopping, career-spanning collection White Apples and the Taste of Stone that coronated his brief moment as poet laureate). On the back of the collection, “Gold”—an older poem, published after his cancer diagnosis but before Kenyon’s—ends with this stanza: “We made in those days / tiny identical rooms inside our bodies / which the men who uncover our graves / will find in a thousand years, / shining and whole.” Image: Vitro Nasu
Al Alvarez, Joyce Carol Oates, John Cheever, and others remember Philip Roth, the creator of iconic characters Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman. 1. Intense [University of Chicago English professor Joan Bennett] invited us to tea to meet one of her students; it was Philip Roth and the stories he was working on in Joan’s class became Goodbye, Columbus. He was very intense and had pronounced views on the department; his wife seemed rather silent. (Chicago, mid-1950s) —From First Generation: An Autobiography, by Ernest Sirluck (University of Toronto Press, 1996) 2. Prince to My Pauper On the first day of a course on Henry James [at the University of Chicago] in the fall of 1957, I found myself sitting next to...a dark debonair fellow in a jacket and tie who...looked like he had strayed into class from the business school...Phil Roth. With the antenna of New York/New Jersey Jews, we quickly tuned into each other. ... Phil wore GI khaki gloves inside his leather ones, but otherwise dressed like the junior faculty member that he also was, having been given a job in the College that the rest of us Ph.D. students would have killed for. ... Around the second week of class, one of the students was going on about the religious allegory that underlay Daisy Miller. [Professor Napier] Wilt asked me what I thought of this interpretation. I said that it was idiotic to read James as though he were Hawthorne. Then Phil jumped in and proceeded to show how eschewing the concrete for the symbolic “turned the story inside out,” that Daisy had to be established as an American girl of a certain class and disposition before she became of any interest as a sacrificial figure. Like two players early in the season who find they can work together, Phil and I passed the ball back and forth, running up the score of good sense. ... The one time he came to our flat, he sat there like a social worker on the edge of a couch over which I had nailed an old shag rug to cover the holes. Though we both came from the same hard-pressed Jewish middle class, his clothes, his place in the College, and the money he made from writing cast us in adult prince and pauper roles. ... During our humor binges, Phil would suddenly slip the moorings of his gifts of precise mimicry, timing, suspense, and imagery and get carried away—or better, swept away—into a wild dark sea of vulgarity and obscenity, as far out and obsessed as Lenny Bruce himself. —From First Loves: A Memoir, by Ted Solotaroff (Seven Stories Press, 2003) 3. Meticulous Invigilator When Philip Roth was living in London, I went to the little apartment where he worked to collect him for lunch. While he was putting on his coat, I glanced at a page of manuscript lying beside his typewriter. Philip has one of the strongest voices of any novelist alive, effortless and apparently unhesitating, yet the page was black with tiny corrections. “Who’s going to notice the difference?” I asked. “You are,” he answered. “I am.” Meticulousness is just one of the obsessions Philip and I share. When we first met 40 years ago [circa 1960] we were both angry young men with bad marriages, troublesome parents and a yearning for shiksas and literature. We had both been good students, full of high seriousness, and even now when we talk about books it’s usually about the masterworks we were taught to admire back in the fifties when we were at college—Kafka, [Nikolai] Gogol, [Henry] James. Since then I have written three novels, yet whenever I am with Philip I realize I lack the novelist’s temperament. A real novelist is an invigilator, constantly on the watch, listening, making mental notes, using whatever happens to happen and weaving it into stories. Maybe that was what James meant by “loose and baggy monsters”: the novel can accommodate everything. —From Where Did It All Go Right? A Memoir, by Al Alvarez (Morrow/HarperCollins, 1999) 4. Boys’ Talk I have a drink, go to meet Philip Roth at the station with the two dogs on leads. He is unmistakable, and I give him an Army whoop from the top of the stairs. Young, supple, gifted, intelligent, he has the young man’s air of regarding most things as if they generated an intolerable heat. I don’t mean fastidiousness, but he holds his head back from his plate of roast beef as if it were a conflagration. He is divorced from a girl I thought delectable. “She won’t even give me back my ice skates.” The conversation hews to a sexual line—cock and balls, [Jean] Genet, [John] Rechy—but he speaks, I think, with grace, subtlety, wit. (Ossining, N.Y., 1963) —From The Journals of John Cheever, by John Cheever (Knopf, 1990) 5. Vigilant Spectator and Critic July 28, 1965 [Yaddo writers retreat, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.]. In the evening, to see the William Wyler film The Collector. Afterwards the Yaddo boys [and two girls] sat around in the Colonial and dissected the film, Roth as usual giving the lead…Roth is a sharp, logical analyst of character and motivation in whatever he sees and reads. I remember that in discussing Herzog he spotted all sorts of illogicalities; when he discussed The Collector, he took it apart, spotting every possible implausibility and moral confusion. He is always outside, vigilantly himself as the spectator and critic and judge. Everything is consciously sized up all day long. This extraordinary conscious intactness! —From Alfred Kazin’s Journals, selected and edited by Richard M. Cook (Yale University Press, 2011) 6. Tall and Handsome We had first met in East Hampton, Long Island, in 1966. Rod [Steiger] and I had taken a house for the summer months, and we had a good time there...bicycle-riding, swimming, performing a host of healthy summer activities. Neighbors invited us over for a drink; one of their houseguests was Philip. Already a highly acclaimed young writer—the author of Goodbye, Columbus, a fine volume of short stories—I recognized his tense, intellectually alert face immediately from photographs. Tanned, tall, and lean, he was unusually handsome; he also seemed to be well aware of his startling effect on women. I was immediately attracted to him, and he would tell me years later that he also had felt the same toward me... —From Leaving a Doll’s House, by Claire Bloom (Little, Brown, 1996) 7. Casual I was talking to Philip Roth for the [Toronto Telegram]. He spoke in the tapered tone of a man who wanted to convey a casual intelligence and amiability, a man deft with an idea. Slender, a little balding, wearing a pullover V-neck sweater and a shirt open at the neck, he paced back and forth on the burgundy plank floors in his flat, and then sat at his writing desk—heavy oak, somewhat awkward to sit at—a gray metal elbow lamp clamped to the desk top, jutting into the air, it angled back over his typewriter. (New York, late 1960s) —From Barrelhouse Kings: A Memoir, by Barry Callaghan (McArthur & Company, 1998) 8. Swarthy Glory As JH [companion James Holmes] and I were finishing our chowder at The Tavern, toying with the notion of leaving next day, stopping our ears against an aggressive accordion and trying to compare notes on our mutual loathing of the local Catholic dishwater-blond fauna, and exclaiming, My God, there’s not one Jew in this town, much less anyone we’d ever want to know! Who should enter in all his swarthy glory but Philip Roth, and Barbara. So they sat and chatted a while, cheered us up some (we’d seen no humans hitherto), and we made a date for Wednesday, but didn’t keep it because we fled instead. (Siasconset, Mass., 1972) —From The Later Diaries: 1961-1972, by Ned Rorem (North Point Press, 1983) 9. Completely Likeable Person May 15, 1974...Met Philip Roth. We went to his apartment, then out to lunch. Attractive, funny, warm, gracious: a completely likeable person. We talked about books, movies, other writers, New York City, Philip’s fame (and its amusing consequences), his experiences in Czechoslovakia meeting with writers. Ray [Smith, husband] and I liked him very much. His apartment on 81st St. is large and attractive, near the Met. Art gallery. He has another house (and another life, one gathers) in Connecticut. My Life as a Man irresistibly engaging. But one wonders at Philip’s pretense that it isn’t autobiographical. —From The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982, by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins, 2007) 10. Handshakes Received and Avoided Philip Roth came with Claire Bloom to [film and stage producer] Patrick Garland’s wedding to [actress] Alexandra Bastedo in the Chichester Cathedral and to the reception afterwards in Bishop Kemp’s quarters in the cathedral grounds. Edward Kemp, the youngest teenage son of the bishop approached him. “Mr. Roth,” he asked, “may I shake you by the hand?” After his wish had been granted and he slipped away (to become in time an excellent writer/director), Philip Roth whispered, “Women at literary luncheons across America have run a mile rather than shake the hand of the man who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint. (West Sussex, England, mid-1970s) —From Ned Sherrin: The Autobiography, by Ned Sherrin (Little Brown, 2005) 11. Inward-Looking Self-Explorer A feeling of authentic French provençal with faded ochre walls and pine tables where you can sit as long as you like…Thompsons, as this modest establishment on the corner of Portobello Mews and next to a new dry-cleaner’s, soon becomes known. … Today Philip Roth is sitting at the back of Thompsons in the gloom. Like an ant-eater’s, his long snout and bright eyes are trained downwards, on the food he consumes. A book is held up close to his face; Roth most definitely does not wish to be disturbed. I’ve heard this most inward-looking and remarkable of self-explorers has a room where he writes in Stanley Gardens, up the hill. I know, despite the fact of his apparent great distance from the talk or excitements around him, that every word one says goes into the long, this head, shaped like a quill with its tufty feathers of black hair, and lies waiting to be inscribed in stone. … The other day, Roth went so far as to invite me to join him in the dark recesses of the restaurant. We talked of nothing much, except Roth’s first wife and the novel, My Life as a Man, that he’d written about her violent and untimely death. My sympathy was brushed aside; Roth declared himself unperturbed by the outcome of his spouse’s tragic accident… After lunch, Roth suggests I “see” his Stanley Gardens workplace. I go up the hill with him, and then up three floors to the minute flat where he sits over his desk, deep in Nathan Zuckerman, his alter ego. There is hardly any space, between desk, armchair and wall, to stand in; but somehow Roth his fitted a rubber mat, green with a swirly pattern, in this tight space, and I find myself—there is nowhere else to go—standing on it. “For my exercises,” Roth says. A silence falls, and I leave, suddenly aware I don’t want to be here at all. Whatever the “exercises” are, I definitely do not want to be a part of them. (London, 1976) —From Burnt Diaries, by Emma Tennant (Canongate Books, 1999) 12. Monk’s Cell With a Great View Roth’s face is lined now, his mouth has tightened and his springy hair has turned grey, but he still looks like an athlete—tall, lean, with broad shoulders and a small head. Until recently, when surgery on his back and arthritis in the shoulder laid him low, he worked out and swam regularly, though always, it seemed, for a purpose—not for the animal pleasure of physical exercise, but to stay fit for the long hours he puts in at his writing. He works standing up, paces around while he’s thinking and has said he walks half a mile for every page he writes. Even now, when his joints are beginning to creak and fail, energy still comes off him like a heat haze, but it all driven by the intellect. It comes out as argument, mimicry, wild comic riffs on whatever happens to turn up in the conversation. His concentration is fierce, and the sharp black eyes under their thick brows miss nothing. The pleasure of his company is immense, but you need to be at your best not to disappoint him. ... The New York studio…where me met to talk…is on the 12th floor, a single large room with a kitchen area, a little bathroom and a glass wall looking south across Manhattan’s gothic landscape to the Empire State Building, with a wisp of cloud around its top. The lectern at which Roth works is at right angles to the view, presumably to avoid distraction…There is a bed with a neat white counterpane against the wall, an easy chair in the center of the room, with a graceful standing lamp beside it, all of it leather and steel and glass, discreetly modern. It is a place strictly for work, spare and chaste, a monk’s cell with a great view. (2004) —From “The Long Road Home,” by Al Alvarez, The Guardian (Sept. 23, 2004) 13. Missed Opportunity I went to hear Hermione Lee, an Oxford University English professor, speak at Columbia University this evening about her just published biography [of Edith Wharton]… I arrived early at Low Library and took a seat in the third row of the nearly empty rotunda. Soon afterwards, a professorial man in a tweedy brown jacket sat down in the seat right next to me, which struck me as odd, considering that he might have been expected to leave an empty seat between us in such uncrowded circumstances. I glanced at him, thought he looked vaguely familiar, couldn’t place him, and went back to working on some writing. (I now blush to think he might have been looking at the page.) Fifteen minutes later, along came my husband, who sat down in the seat on my left. The “professor” soon moved one seat over, laying his coat across the seat between us. When Hermione Lee took her seat onstage, I noticed her nod in greeting to the man on my right. Then, the person who introduced her mentioned that she had once written an essay on Philip Roth. And then, of course, I knew. I cast a sidelong glance at “the professor,” and realized the person I had studiously ignored while I continued my own scribbling was arguably our country’s most famous living literary novelist… I had just missed the opportunity to have a 15-minute tête-à-tête with the perpetrator of Portnoy. After the Wharton talk concluded, I lamely inquired if he was Philip Roth and told him it was nice to see him. He returned the pleasantry and was off to commune with the academic types up front. (New York City, 2007) —From “Philip Roth: Another Missed Opportunity,” by Lee Rosenbaum, Arts Journal’s CultureGrrl blog (April 12, 2007) Image credit: Flickr/hye tyde http://images.amazon.com/images/P/B004J4WLU0.01.MZZZZZZZ.jpg
Beloved American novelist Philip Roth has died at age 85. Author of more than two dozen novels, including Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, and American Pastoral, Roth garnered every accolade (except, famously, The Nobel--read our plea to the Swedish Academy here), and his passing marks the end of an era in American letters. Some Roth pieces from our archives: -An Open Letter to the Nobel Committee -Ten Lessons from the Professor of Desire -Staff Pick: Sabbath's Theater -Philip Roth's Bleak Theater -Life and Counterlife Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]