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How Memory Works

David Brooks includes, among this year’s winners of his Sidney Awards, an essay by Robert Boyers, editor of the quarterly Salmagundi.

Many years back, Boyers published an essay UD wrote, about living in Warsaw, and she’s always remembered his kind letter (“lots of good stuff in here”).

Boyers’ winning essay is about the novelist Charles Newman, with whom UD had dinner decades ago, in Chicago.

Boyers, in his memoir of Newman, makes much of his physical beauty, as do a number of people who, after his death in 2006, wrote about him.


From the long desk where she’s sitting now, at 2020 K Street, Washington DC, UD tries to summon Newman, across the table from her as he was that night in the ‘seventies. She tries to put him right over there, facing her, as he was then.

She remembers the restaurant, remembers thinking it was over-lit. The long dinner table had to do with several other people taking part in the event. UD remembers Elliott Anderson, also a writer, and Gerald Graff, an English professor. She’s thinking maybe eight people finally gathered.

Finally. The main thing UD recalls of that evening is Newman and his companions arriving incredibly, unapologetically, late. Since it was a dinner, UD and a number of others arrived only a little late; Newman rolled in two and a half hours after meeting time.

Although she must have just graduated from Northwestern, and therefore have been both young and quite junior to Newman, UD showed him her anger. She didn’t say anything. Saying anything would have been uncool, and this was a cool group. But she let her eyes register surprise, mild contempt.

In response, Newman let his eyes register an indifference that was at once indifference to UD‘s feelings (what she felt was that he was a celebrated novelist and she a nothing not worth showing up for) and indifference to UD as someone he might bed.

That part UD vividly recalls, because she didn’t respond to the beauty Boyers and others describe. Newman was a tall, strapping, all-American boy from the midwest. UD‘s taste ran to neurotic Jews and tormented Europeans. UD was attracted to her Rilke professor – a rotund, irritable, 65-year-old displaced Czech Jewish homosexual.

Plus, Newman was drunk and sleepy – he must have been late because he wanted to tank up – and sleepy drunks didn’t turn her on either.

Having piled on top of his lateness a pointless sexual diss, Newman at this point kind of shriveled up. UD viewed him for the rest of the evening through the mist (quoting Humbert Humbert here) of her utter rejection of him.

It was strange how quickly UD disliked Newman, because she’d entered the restaurant primed for admiration and sympathy. She liked his writing, fiction and non-fiction; she knew his wife had committed suicide. But whatever humanizing struggles he’d had in his life, Newman chose to show UD only the Stepford chill that went with his looks.


Stepford’s the wrong reference. This is a story about the ‘sixties, even if it took place in the ‘seventies.

A post-coital, post-chemical languor, a give-a-shit hipness, was the currency of the day. Chet Baker singing My Funny Valentine. Amy Winehouse singing anything. That was the mood. I care less than you care. My transgressions are more self-destructive.

Erich Heller, UD‘s Rilke professor, offered a different model – modernism instead of postmodernism. In Heller’s world, it was all out there; the angst was on the boil and you were actively trying to do something about it. In Newman’s world, which was the real world UD then moved in, the angst persisted, but you boiled it down with irony and a raggedy sense of the futility of it all. She preferred Heller’s way.

Margaret Soltan, December 20, 2011 6:59PM
Posted in: snapshots from home

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One Response to “How Memory Works”

  1. Bill Gleason Says:

    Very nice.

    Especially the Humbert Humbert.

    Wesołych świąt!

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