Sherwin Nuland…

… who wrote How We Die, has died. The book is full of great prose passages, including this one at the beginning, which recounts his comic/horrific initiation into doctoring:

I had just begun my third year of medical school, and it was my unsettling lot to encounter death and my very first patient at the same hour.

Only in his twenties, he was “eager to the point of zealousness” for patient contact, and when the busy intern on duty asked Nuland “to do the admission workup on this new coronary that’s just going into 507,” he was thrilled.

After a small heart attack, the patient – a hard-charging construction executive in his fifties who loved “smoking, red meat, and great slabs of bacon [and] butter” – seemed to have stabilized.

McCarty greeted me with a thin, forced smile, but he couldn’t have found my presence reassuring. I have often wondered over the years what must have gone through the mind of that high-pressure boss of large, tough men when he saw my boyish (I was then twenty-two) face and heard me say that I had come to take his history and examine him. Whatever it was, he didn’t get much chance to mull it over. As I sat down at his bedside he suddenly threw his head back and bellowed out a wordless roar that seemed to rise up out of his throat from somewhere deep within his stricken heart. He hit his balled fists with startling force up against the front of his chest in a single synchronous thump, just as his face and neck, in the flash of an instant, turned swollen and purple. His eyes seemed to have pushed themselves forward in one bulging thrust, as though they were trying to leap out of his head. He took one immensely long, gurgling breath, and died.

Yes, this is conventional straightforward first-person past-tense narration. No emotional fireworks. But precisely because of the fireworks he’s describing, because of the astounding sudden break in the fabric of life he’s about to witness, the correct prose medium is indeed cool. The dry, wry, after-the-fact feel of the piece (the best line in the paragraph is Whatever it was, he didn’t get much chance to mull it over.), combined with unsparing clinical detail in his description (synchronous is good) gives us all at once the complex scenic elements we want: James McCarty’s instantaneous unfathomable transformation from a man to a bellowing dying beast; the rarin’ to go young doctor’s almost farcical, equally instantaneous, plunge into futility; the seasoned, self-amused, self-pitying narrator. The narrator who exhibits the peculiar brief sharp empathic curiosity about other human beings (what must have gone through the mind) doctors must so often feel…

“Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?”

Profound, hilarious, beautiful writing about being a geezer with a lot of dead cheerleaders.

Roger Angell’s writing jibed, somehow, with something I wrote in my journal yesterday:

I thought suddenly – on my way just now from my office to the Foggy Bottom metro – of my mother, about whom – despite my deep love for her – I don’t very often think. Given the drama of my father’s death [suicide], I think a good deal more about him. But okay, I think of Mitz, and… it’s kind of a blank. What is Mitz? My sweet sweet mother to whom I owe it all, really – all my happiness. Because she loved me so much. But the thought I had – the only thought I had – recalling her, was “Now that I’ve got a bit of age on me it’s absolutely obviously true that I’m totally unlike her.”

It is the duty of the dead, writes Saul Bellow somewhere, to be forgotten. (In Herzog, he writes, “To him, perpetual thought of death was a sin. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.”) I don’t like the end of that just-dead interim, when they’re still alive because we’re mourning them so intensely — when that’s over, their duty to be forgotten comes into play, and they fulfill that duty.

Amazingly, I’m still in the David-interim almost three years later. A measure of his immense influence. Just the other day for some reason I produced a small squeak of compassion at the thought of him, rather than the routine angry bark … He must finally be moving out of the interim…

Doris Lessing…

… has died.

UD‘s 2007 interview about her can be found here.

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From a Paris Review interview:

Oh, Germany last year, my God! That was the most disastrous trip. It was some academic institution in Germany. I said to them, “Look, I want to do what I always do. I’ll read the story and then I’ll take questions.” They said, the way academics always do, “Oh you can’t expect our students to ask questions.” I said, “Look, just let me handle this, because I know how.” Anyway, what happened was typical in Germany: We met at four o’clock in order to discuss the meeting that was going to take place at eight. They cannot stand any ambiguity or disorder — no, no! Can’t bear it. I said, “Look, just leave it.” The auditorium was very large and I read a story in English and it went down very well, perfectly okay. I said, “I will now take questions.” Then this bank of four bloody professors started to answer questions from the audience and debate among themselves, these immensely long academic questions of such tedium that finally the audience started to get up and drift out. A young man, a student sprawled on the gangway — as a professor finished something immensely long — called out, “BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH.” So with total lack of concern for the professors’ feelings I said, “Look, I will take questions in English from the audience.” So they all came back and sat down, and it went well . . . perfectly lively questions! The professors were absolutely furious. So that was Germany. Germany’s the worst, it really is; the end.

Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

[Perhaps] reading Kafka or Woolf or Naipaul does make you a better, more empathic person. (Though what about your hardline literary misanthropes, by the way — your Bernhards, your Houellebecqs, your Célines? Do we gain anything in moral aptitude by reading these dreadful old bastards, and, if we don’t, is doing so somehow less worthy of our time?) But even if it didn’t, even if reading made you a worse person … reading would be no less vital an activity. I don’t know whether all those boxes full of books have made me any kind of better person; I don’t know whether they’ve made me kinder and more perceptive, or whether they’ve made me more introspective and detached and self-absorbed. Most likely it’s some combination of all these characteristics, perhaps canceling each other out. But I do know that I wouldn’t want to be without those books or my having read them, and that their importance to me is mostly unrelated to any power they might have to make me a more considerate person.

UD said something similar, a few weeks back, to what Mark O’Connell says. (“Reading novels like Lolita and The Tropic of Cancer and The Elementary Particles will have God knows what impact on your personal morality and your engagement as a citizen. These are funny, nihilistic, cynical works, and I’d hate to have to be the one to determine their moral or character-building potential. As Georg Lukacs long ago pointed out about Kafka – and what serious education in the humanities is without Kafka? – great writers of our time have a tendency to maunder on inconclusively about the hopelessly alienated consciousness; or they sketch a world with very little collective action in it… Writers like Don DeLillo, America’s greatest living novelist, routinely get called bad citizens.”) O’Connell’s responding to the same thing UD was – yet another report or study proving scientifically that reading serious literature makes you a better person. There’s always another such study coming down the pike, and they’re all silly things, attracting yet sillier self-aggrandizing commentary from teachers and writers.

August Kleinzahler points out that “Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.” The same is true – maybe even truer – of serious non-poetic literature. Reading this sort of stuff is, as O’Connell writes, an intense and “vital” experience. Its language tends to excite us in rather obscure ways; its disclosure of usually hidden human depths may thrill us. Perhaps we want to say that great literature tends to reconcile us to the truths of our shared condition. But force feeding yourself George Eliot because you want to be a more empathetic person will only make you hate George Eliot.

Alice Munro…

… wins the literature Nobel.

“I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”

*************************

INTERVIEWER

Was the community you grew up in pleased about your career?

MUNRO

It was known there had been stories published here and there, but my writing wasn’t fancy. It didn’t go over well in my hometown. The sex, the bad language, the incomprehensibility . . . The local newspaper printed an editorial about me: A soured introspective view of life . . . And, A warped personality projected on . . . My dad was already dead when they did that. They wouldn’t do it while Dad was alive, because everyone really liked him. He was so liked and respected that everybody muted it a bit. But after he died, it was different.

**************************

There are parts of a story where the story fails… The story fails but your faith in the importance of doing the story doesn’t fail. That it might is the danger. This may be the beast that’s lurking in the closet in old age—the loss of the feeling that things are worth doing… Of course it wouldn’t matter if you did give up writing. It’s not the giving up of the writing that I fear. It’s the giving up of this excitement or whatever it is that you feel that makes you write.

“[T]he president’s efforts to govern domestically have been stymied in the legislature by an extremist rump faction of the main opposition party.”

America’s broken government, rendered brilliantly by Joshua Keating.

Seamus Heaney has died.

Colm Tóibín remembers him.

UD writes about one of his poems here.

****************

Heaney’s charming translation of a ninth century Irish poem reminds UD of Auden’s translation of the poem, set to music by Samuel Barber.

As DSK goes on trial for pimping…

… pages from his American imprisonment diary.

Le scoop on le pimping. Note the video of a protest at Cambridge University over his having been invited to speak there.

“… Jane would be soon married to Mr. Bingley. — It was an animating subject, and Mrs. Bennet seemed incapable of fatigue while enumerating the advantages of the match. His being such a charming young man, and so rich, and living but three miles from them, were the first points of self-gratulation; and then it was such a comfort to think how fond the two sisters were of Jane, and to be certain that they must desire the connection as much as she could do. It was, moreover, such a promising thing for her younger daughters, as Jane’s marrying so greatly must throw them in the way of other rich men…”

Jane Austen will be on the £10 note.

Bette and I staggered down Georgia Avenue in her 1998 Volvo…

… on our way to Rock Creek Cemetery and Gore Vidal’s grave. Georgia is all stop and go traffic and saggy storefronts, a sad landscape in no way helped by the humid morning overcast. Google gives the wrong entrance to the place, so we asked a woman working in her garden how to get in. “Down that alley,” she said, pointing, “and turn left.” Bumpity bumpity down the alley and there it was, the church at the entrance (I sang in its choir one Sunday – a paid gig.).

We saw a big stone with McGOVERN on it and looked more closely. No first name, but next to it was Eleanor’s, and next to hers, Terry McGovern’s. Bette and I both remembered Terry McGovern’s cold drunk death.

We knew Vidal’s grave was near the famous Saint-Gaudens Adams Memorial (watch this with the sound turned down), so we first sat for awhile in front of that. Bette took this picture.

gaudensrockcreek3

Then began the difficult search for Gore. Section D, steps from the Saint-Gaudens – we knew this much. Also an unusual combination of a long slab and an upright gravestone. We munched the taffy we’d picked up at the cemetery offices, where a nice woman told us Vidal wasn’t in their system yet. I thought of the strange state he was in almost exactly a year after his death – a kind of predigitalized bardo – and how he’d maybe find that amusing. Anyway, I knew if the woman gave us Howard Auster’s location, that would also be Vidal’s. D 48, she said, and she circled the location.

The 48 was no help – Rock Creek Cemetery is not user friendly – but we tromped on, munching, peering, following this lane and that among the boxwood and statuary. Traffic from North Capitol Street streamed by. We were the only visitors, far as we could tell, in the whole place. Just us and two guys digging a fresh grave.

We circled and circled Section D but kept coming up empty; and I said to Bette: “Let’s go. It’s the thought that counts.” And as the Volvo crept away from the D Section I saw it, just curbside, and twenty steps straight downhill from the Saint-Gaudens: An upright stone and a large slab. “Hold on. Stop.”

vidalgrave

So I would be able to salute him after all; which I did. I saluted him and I said I know you said love is not your bag, but I love you.

He wrote this, at the end of his memoir:

I’ve… been reading through this memoir, adding, subtracting, writing over half-erased texts, ‘palimpsesting’ – all the while looking for clues not so much to me, the subject, if indeed I am the subject, as to what [my] first thirty-nine years were all about… [on] the small planet that each of us so briefly visits… Finally, I seem to have written, for the first and last time, not the ghost story that I feared, but a love story, as circular in shape as desire (and its pursuit), ending with us whole at last in the shade of a copper beech.

So after all he wrote a love story, the story of his imperishable love for Jimmie Trimble, who was killed in the war and is buried near Vidal, both of them in the shade of a copper beech. Strange to think that his entire life after one passionate encounter with Trimble felt to Vidal partial, unfulfilled in any important way, and that his memoir anticipates the final lying-in that would bring him back to completion.

UD now stood under the beech thinking of all of this, of the way she read Vidal for clues not so much to me, the subject, if indeed I am the subject

Insta-Gore Vidal Grave Pilgrimage Blogging!

Well… not instaUD is right now off to Rock Creek Cemetery with her friend and neighbor Bette, where they will of course visit the famous Adams Memorial. Steps from this statue lies Vidal, and although he was a kook in his latter years… and although quite a bit of his writing was hackwork, many of his essays were beautiful and brilliant. UD will write about her little homage journey as soon as she gets back.

On Saul Bellow’s birthday…

… a sample of his great prose, and some words about why it’s great.

This is from Herzog, the book UD considers by far his best.

Moses Herzog, an urban American intellectual in his forties, is having a slow-motion nervous breakdown as his personal life falls apart. Here he’s in Chicago on a hot day, getting into his car to take his young daughter (who lives with his about-to-be-ex-wife and the man with whom she was unfaithful to Herzog) to visit an aquarium.

He had an extraordinary number of keys, by now, and must organize them better in his pockets. There were his New York house keys, the key Ramona had given him, the Faculty Men’s Lounge key from the university, and the key to Asphalter’s apartment, as well as several Ludeyville keys. “You must sit in the back seat, honey. Creep in now, and pull down your dress because the plastic is very hot.” The air from the west was drier than the east air. Herzog’s sharp senses detected the difference. In these days of near-delerium and wide-ranging disordered thought, deeper currents of feeling had heightened his perceptions, or made him instill something of his own into his surroundings. As though he painted them with moisture and color taken from his own mouth, his blood, liver, bowels, genitals. In this mingled way, therefore, he was aware of Chicago, familiar ground to him for more than thirty years. And out of its elements, by this peculiar art of his own organs, he created his version of it. Where the thick walls and buckled slabs of pavement in the Negro slums exhaled their bad smells. Farther west, the industries; the sluggish South Branch, dense with sewage and glittering with a crust of golden slime; the Stockyards, deserted; the tall red slaughterhouses in lonely decay; and then a faintly buzzing dullness of bungalows and scrawny parks; and vast shopping centers; and the cemeteries after these – Waldheim, with its graves for Herzogs past and present; the Forest Preserves for riding parties; Croatian picnics, lovers’ lanes, horrible murders; airports; quarries; and, last of all, cornfields. And with this, infinite forms of activity – Reality. Moses had to see reality. Perhaps he was somewhat spared from it so that he might see it better, not fall asleep in its thick embrace. Awareness was his work; extended consciousness was his line, his business. Vigilance. If he borrowed time to take his tiny daughter to see the fishes he would find a way to make it up to the vigilance-fund. This day was just like – he braced himself and faced it – like the day of Father’ Herzog’s funeral. Then too, it was flowering weather – roses, magnolias. Moses, the night before, had cried, slept, the air was wickedly perfumed; he had had luxuriant dreams, painful, evil, and rich, interrupted by the rare ecstasy of nocturnal emission – how death dangles freedom before the enslaved instincts: the pitiful sons of Adam whose minds and bodies must answer strange signals. Much of my life has been spent in the effort to live by more coherent ideas.

Let’s analyze this paragraph. My comments are in parenthesis, in blue.

He had an extraordinary number of keys, by now, and must organize them better in his pockets. [Ends on his strongest word - pockets - and a word tonally at odds with the other words in the sentence. It kind of pops out sharply - pockets - at the end of a sentence that has been mainly about mushy words. This little wake-up, this little satori, at the end of the sentence, rouses us for the next sentence, subliminally leads us to expect an intensification or deepening or emotionalizing of the idea of personal disorder. The keys, we must be led to understand - but led at the same time as Herzog himself is led to understand, since it's the motion of his consciousness moving unsteadily toward difficult truths that we're following in real time - symbolize Herzog's inner deterioration, his having lost the key to existence. We must grasp this subtly, incompletely, obliquely, as a particularly defensive and clotted human consciousness grasps it. Note, then, how his prose will accomplish this feat.] There were his New York house keys, the key Ramona had given him, the Faculty Men’s Lounge key from the university, and the key to Asphalter’s apartment, as well as several Ludeyville keys. [Attempting to organize himself mentally, Herzog first simply lists the keys and their provenances; this is a familiar mental game we all play, pulling our thoughts together by identifying things, listing things. Formally, it's also a clever move, since this list serves as a kind of summary of the plot so far, reminding the readers about the scenes and characters we've encountered.] “You must sit in the back seat, honey. Creep in now, and pull down your dress because the plastic is very hot.” [Bellow will interrupt his stream of consciousness with the intrusive facts of immediate social reality. His character has not fallen so far that he's psychotic, unable to register and assimilate external event. Yet the narrative back and forth between long involved paragraphs of thought, memory, reasoning, and sudden brief flashes from the outside world conveys the difficulty Herzog's having negotiating his oppressed and trying-to-puzzle-it-out consciousness and the simple fact of other people and a daily social life.] The air from the west was drier than the east air. [Note that this very simple, essentially monosyllabic sentence will be followed by a series of more and more complex sentences as Herzog gradually transitions from the outer world - he has just said something to his daughter - to his much more engrossing inner world.] Herzog’s sharp senses detected the difference. [All of Bellow's books are about the effort to intensify consciousness, to apprehend the truth of the natural, the human, and the divine. He has endowed Herzog with the same hypersensitive awareness he gives most of his protagonists, an awareness at once the glory of humanity - our insight and lucidity are amazing, our distinguishing power - and - at least for people like Herzog - our doom. For Herzog is debilitatingly self-conscious, a comic figure asking for more illumination than his human mind can yield. His wife in fact has left him for an idiot, but a big happy lusty idiot.] In these days of near-delerium and wide-ranging disordered thought, deeper currents of feeling had heightened his perceptions, or made him instill something of his own into his surroundings. [Note by the way the indirect discourse technique Bellow has adopted here. We're clearly in the mind of Herzog, but things are being rendered in third-person. But notice also, later in this passage, that we will slip out of third into first-person. Bellow learned this technique - and so much else - from James Joyce's Ulysses. He even got his hero's name - Moses Herzog - from a minor character in Ulysses. Moving always from third to first back to third, etc., is a way of registering not only our restless consciousness, but the way we shift from regarding ourselves with a certain neutral objectivity to often simply being enmeshed in a direct and not particularly reflective way in the ongoing business of being us. And this idea of instilling oneself into one's surroundings -- isn't that the way we perceive and encounter and lend meaning to the world? We interpret it as a projection of our consciousness; we shade each external object with our particular internal emotional condition, our inner coloration. Thus, for instance, Wallace Stevens in "Sunday Morning" talks about passions of rain.] As though he painted them with moisture and color taken from his own mouth, his blood, liver, bowels, genitals. [This bizarre sentence and idea is one mark of the great writer. It has an almost repellent anatomical literalness, a grotesque and off-putting oddness. And yet this sentence has an important function in the evolving consciousness of this passage, moving us yet closer to the disordered, suffering, vulnerable existential state of Herzog. He is becoming naked in this passage, exposed, just as his mental illness, if you will, involves the destruction of his privacy, defenses, self-control, self-respect. He has been laid bare by misfortune. It's like Prufrock:

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall...

When very bad things happen to you, suddenly everyone can see you. It's one of the many indignities of misfortune: There it is in all its glory for the world to see: Your weakness, your failure.]

In this mingled way, therefore, he was aware of Chicago, [Note that words like extraordinary and therefore mark what's left of Herzog's intellectual orientation. His impressive reasoning mind is being overtaken by emotional chaos, but this language marks his effort to keep analytical dispassion alive. Thus we remain in the third-person for this; only when he's at his most naked will Herzog move into first-person.] familiar ground to him for more than thirty years. And out of its elements, by this peculiar art of his own organs, he created his version of it. [Creating your version of the world is knowing it the only way we can know it; it is marking it with our consciousness in the way a dog marks his territory, makes it his.] Where the thick walls and buckled slabs of pavement in the Negro slums exhaled their bad smells. [Note that assonance: walls/buckled/slabs/slums/exhaled/smells. Notice buckled and slums. Notice slabs/slums/smells. All of it gives poetry, of all things, to this sort of description, and thereby - since it is Herzog's poetry - gives his consciousness individuality, romance.] Farther west, the industries; the sluggish South Branch, dense with sewage and glittering with a crust of golden slime; the Stockyards, deserted; the tall red slaughterhouses in lonely decay; and then a faintly buzzing dullness of bungalows and scrawny parks; and vast shopping centers; and the cemeteries after these – Waldheim, with its graves for Herzogs past and present; the Forest Preserves for riding parties; Croatian picnics, lovers’ lanes, horrible murders; airports; quarries; and, last of all, cornfields. [You see how we've gone from that earlier short monosyllabic sentence to this massive list, this amazing and still-romantic rendering of Chicago? And see how he's kept his degraded/glorious contradiction going? Glittering, golden, vast, lovers... We could take these words and make this place a Wordsworthian delight. But also sluggish - see how sluggish picks up and extends the slabs/slums/smells series? - and crust, decay, scrawny, murders... See too how subtly Herzog personalizes this passage, reminding the reader of his particular losses and the way they mark the city's land - the graves of Herzogs. Notice above all at this point how much Bellow is juggling: The immediate present of his daughter, the drive to the aquarium; his rageful, troubled consciousness; his analytical, truth-seeking consciousness; his personal coloration/interpretation of the city and larger world; his reckoning with his past and with death...] And with this, infinite forms of activity – Reality. Moses had to see reality. [By now, you're picking up on Bellow's constant poetic shaping of his language: all of those short i's: with, this, infinite, activity, reality.] Perhaps he was somewhat spared from it so that he might see it better, not fall asleep in its thick embrace. [A recurrent theme in Herzog is the character's privileged American immunity from real suffering -- physical suffering, the suffering of poverty, the sort of suffering so comprehensive as to make it impossible to take that analytical step backward and see reality.] Awareness was his work; extended consciousness was his line, his business. [I think we are meant to smile at this as a species of delusion, arrogance. Bellow always described Herzog as a comic send-up of intellectual arrogance. Here we have a man, Moses Herzog, exceptionally intellectually gifted and yet living one of the stupidest lives imaginable. His big brain isn't doing him any good. Arguably it's making things worse.] Vigilance. If he borrowed time to take his tiny daughter to see the fishes he would find a way to make it up to the vigilance-fund. [Vigilance-fund signals the truth of what I just wrote. This is Herzog self-aware enough to satirize his endeavor.] This day was just like – he braced himself and faced it – like the day of Father’ Herzog’s funeral. [Okay and note: No paragraph break as we switch to this family theme. This is stream of consciousness. Also, it's not as if we haven't been prepared for what will now be a memory of and meditation on death, and the weird relationship of the living to the dead. Already his family cemetery has been mentioned.] Then too, it was flowering weather – roses, magnolias. [Herzog heads into his memory of the day of his father's funeral. Like everyone, he moves, consciousness-wise, via associations. The particular spring weather this day has prompted thoughts of the same weather that day. And again the poetry: roses, magnolias. To his other conflicts in this passage we can add the conflict of death on a day of intense flowering life.] Moses, the night before, had cried, slept, the air was wickedly perfumed; he had had luxuriant dreams, painful, evil, and rich, interrupted by the rare ecstasy of nocturnal emission – how death dangles freedom before the enslaved instincts: the pitiful sons of Adam whose minds and bodies must answer strange signals. Much of my life has been spent in the effort to live by more coherent ideas. [Cool, huh? Start with the end: Of course now we get one of our forays into first person: Most of MY life... Having really stripped himself as this passage concludes, Herzog has nowhere else to go but to the "pitiful" fact of his own particular fleshly, enslaved self. This passage has taken us from the heights of rational consideration of the world to the nighttime depths of one vulnerable infantilized weeping utterly overcome slob. The air was wickedly perfumed; his dreams were evil. The obscene grotesquerie of his father's death inspiring in Herzog not noble philosophical despair but ecstatic sexual liberation so strong as to inspire a wet dream -- what are we to do with this? These are incoherent ideas, incoherent feelings - one's beloved father's death as a seductive spectacle of freedom? - and then this absurd final sentence, written as if part of a grant application:

Much of my life has been spent in the effort to live by more coherent ideas.

So - nothing new here. Like all of us, Herzog is torn between instinct and reason, his animal and higher nature. This passage puts us right into the seriousness, pathos and comedy of that grappling. It reminds us (the dreams, the nocturnal emission) just how enslaved our instincts are, and how elusive the keys (you remember the keys) to ourselves and to the world.]

I’m teaching a Grace Paley story tomorrow.

Her New York Times obituary quotes from one of her stories.


“I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.

“Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.

“He said, What? What life? No life of mine.

“I said, O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.

“The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.

“My ex-husband followed me to the Books Returned desk. He interrupted the librarian, who had more to tell. In many ways, he said, as I look back, I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner.

“That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began.”

The Japes of Roth

Other writers have more depth, greater verbal gifts, but few are as wickedly funny as Philip Roth, who recently announced his retirement from writing (and it sounds as though he means it).

In one of those lost chord moments, I recall sitting in my boyfriend’s car outside Chicago’s Newbery Library one cold afternoon, waiting for him to pick something up there. I was listening to a tape he had of Philip Roth reading from one of his stories, and I was rolling with laughter. I can’t find it now – probably wouldn’t recognize it if I did hear it.

I remember, too, my parents howling over Portnoy’s Complaint, reading aloud to one another the scene where his mother describes one of his classmates who’s made it big:

Pianist! Oh, that’s one of the words they just love, almost as much as doctor, Doctor. And residency. And best of all, his own office. He opened his own office in Livingston. “Do you remember Seymour Schmuck, Alex?” she asks me, or Aaron Putz or Howard Shlong, or some yo-yo I am supposed to have known in grade school twenty-five years ago, and of whom I have no recollection whatsoever. “Well, I met his mother on the street today, and she told me that Seymour is now the biggest brain surgeon in the entire Western Hemisphere. He owns six different split-level ranch-type houses made all of fieldstone in Livingston, and belongs to the boards of eleven synagogues, all brand-new and designed by Marc Kugel, and last year with his wife and his two little daughters, who are so beautiful that they are already under contract to Metro, and so brilliant that they should be in college – he took them all to Europe for an eighty-million-dollar tour of seven thousand countries, some of them you never even heard of, that they made them just to honor Seymour, and on top of that, he’s so important, Seymour, that in every single city in Europe that they visited he was asked by the mayor himself to stop and do an impossible operation on a brain in hospitals that they also built for him right on the spot, and – listen to this – where they pumped into the operating room during the operation the theme song from Exodus so everybody should know what religion he is – and that’s how big your friend Seymour is today! And how happy he makes his parents!” And you, the implication is, when are you going to get married already. In Newark and the surrounding suburbs this is apparently the question on everybody’s lips: WHEN IS ALEXANDER PORTNOY GOING TO STOP BEING SELFISH AND GIVE HIS PARENTS, WHO ARE SUCH WONDERFUL PEOPLE, GRANDCHILDREN?


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I like the way Roth recently responded to an interviewer who asked him if he’s afraid of death.

“Yes, I’m afraid. It’s horrible… What else could I say? It’s heartbreaking. It’s unthinkable. It’s incredible. Impossible.”

And from the same 2005 interview, some insight on why he has stopped writing:

“When I write, I’m alone. It’s filled with fear and loneliness and anxiety – and I never needed religion to save me.”

I ask him why he keeps writing then, if it’s so lonely and full of anxiety? He sighs – loudly.

“There are some days that compensate completely,” he says. “In my life I have had, in total, a couple of months of these completely wonderful days as a writer, and that is enough … It’s actually a good question… You know, it’s a choice to be occupied with literature, like everything else is a choice. But you quickly identify with the profession. And that’s the first nail in the coffin. Then you struggle across the decades to make your work better, to make it a bit different, to do it again and to prove to yourself that you can do it.”

“But you know that you can do it now, right?”

“I have no idea that I can do it again. How can I know? How do I know that I won’t run out of ideas tomorrow? It’s a horrible existence being a writer[,] filled with deprivation. I don’t miss specific people, but I miss life. I didn’t discover that during the first 20 years, because I was fighting – in the ring with the literature. That fight was life, but then I discovered that I was in the ring all by myself.”

He gets up. “It was the interests in life and the attempt to get life down on the pages which made me a writer – and then I discovered that, in many ways, I am standing on the outside of life”.

It’s the theme played out in Thomas Mann’s story, Tonio Kröger.

“He was 103 and had continued to compose into his 11th decade.”

Elliott Carter dies.

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