I recently bought a rosemary plant. She is not happy. She yearns to be outside. So do we all, Rosemary! I wish she would straighten up, but she persists in maintaining her Martha Graham stretch towards a fiercely desired elsewhere. Rosemary reproaches me.
I reproach her.
Yesterday, returning through the back courtyard of my building with weekend provisions, I found my actor neighbor Ian repotting a hothouse of plants — a ballerina of a ficus tree, a robust rubber tree plant, and numerous other flora I could not name. He had large clay pots, great bags of potting soil and bounteous enthusiasm. I approached him for advice.
“Eastern exposure’s no good!” he shouted cheerfully. “Herbs like that need a ton of sun — a ton! Why don’t you take the stems you need, you know, for cooking, and plant it out back?”
“Out back” is the side of the building, where (only in New York) on a tiny strip of yard, certain residents of the co-op maintain miniscule herb and vegetable gardens. They are known as the Gardening Brigade and although I am technically of their demographic (female, middle-aged, unencumbered by caretaking), I am not of their kind. I spend my weekends at my keyboard, illuminated by my scant eastern exposure, and not on my hands and knees, toiling in soil. I respect that toil, but I do not yearn for it.
Ian and I agreed that once Rosemary starts to falter, I will leave her in front of his door, or leave her in the back courtyard with a sign akin to Paddington Bear’s: “Please look after this plant, thank you.”
But something in the way she slants reminds me of a painting I saw years ago — decades ago — at the Whitney Museum, when I was still fairly new to New York, recovering both from a difficult upbringing and the disappointing realization that New York City, for all its possibilities, would not magic-wand away my childhood damage. I saw a painting titled Resilient Young Pine.
For years, I remembered little about it except the delicate, resolute brushstrokes, and the depiction of the idea of being battened by great winds and remaining, if not upright, then still standing. I remembered that word: resilient. “Resilient young pine,” I would remind myself over the years through personal and professional setbacks, breakups and rejections and loss.
“What was that painting?” I have asked myself recently, as people used to ask at the end of an episode of The Lone Ranger, “Who was that masked man?” (Masks: how timely. I will not be exploring that here.)
A google search revealed that Resilient Young Pine is the work of Morris Graves, a mid-century native of Washington State, who was categorized as part of the school a magazine dubbed the “Northwest Mystics.” Resilient Young Pine is currently part of the collection of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, whose description of the painting, “heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism,” includes the statement that Morris Graves “lived his life in an eccentric manner.”
Since, damn it, “eccentric manner” could mean anything, I researched further and learned that Graves, a dreamer and a high school dropout, took on work as a deckhand on a merchant ship. The ship took him to Japan, where, he has said, “I at once had the feeling that this was the right way to do everything. It was the acceptance of nature, not the resistance to it. I had no sense that I was to be a painter, but I breathed a different air.”
Graves’ painting was to me what Japan was to him. A different air. He returned to the U.S., finished high school, and then painted. He achieved enough early success (and had simple enough needs) that he was able to live out the rest of his life on painting alone. He lived as a recluse on chilly Northwest islands, usually alone, except for the companionship of dogs and cats, all of whom were called Edith. (If this detail does not delight you, I don’t know why we are friends.) All the while, according to Art and Antiques magazine, he created “many depictions of birds, animals, and flora, delicately drawn over abstract backgrounds of gently washed-on color.”
During the war, Graves was painting away on his foggy Pacific island when he was arrested. His application to register as a conscientious objector was misfiled by the army. That happenstance, along with his affinity for all things Japanese, landed him a midwestern brig for a few years. Afterwards, he returned to his Washington island and his Ediths, continued to explore transcendence through painting, and continued to meditate.
He remained resilient.
I returned to the house, which I thought of as a house and not a hotel. The stairway in the entry hall was stately, with landings and a banister, delivering you in a spacious foyer. You could imagine the daughter of the house skipping down the stairs holding a wide-brimmed hat, set to embark on a wholesome adventure—a church picnic, or a drive to the sea with a favorite bachelor uncle. I pictured Sally Ann Howes, who played the daughter of the house in a spooky British film called Dead of Night, in which a group of people at an English country house frighten each other by telling tales of the supernatural, which are then depicted.
When Sally Ann Howes and her bouncing blonde curls enters the drawing room (after one or two tales have been told), several of the adults in the room cry “Sally!” (her character’s name is also Sally) as though now that she has arrived, the real action can take off. The story Sally/Sally tells is pretty generic, a standard why-no-one’s-been-in-that-nursery-since-the-young-Master-was-murdered-there! bit of business. The real star turn of Dead of Night is Michael Redgrave playing a ventriloquist driven insane by his dummy, Hugo.
(And good news, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UCJz617E8s right now, or when you’re finished reading this.)
I didn’t know, seeing this movie as a child, that Sally Ann Howes was the child of one of those British acting dynasties that populates stage and screen for generations. I only knew that she grew up to play Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a film based on a book by Ian Fleming, who makes no appearance in my novel but who was inspired by the floor to ceiling fish tank in the Gazebo Bar of the Princess Hotel (where much of my novel takes place) to include a similar feature of architecture in one of his novels—Doctor No, perhaps?
The screenplay to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was co-written by Roald Dahl, whose memoirs of his time with the RAF in North Africa, Going Solo, I had purchased only days before in the gift shop at the Imperial War Museum and which was in my suitcase in the room upstairs to which I was clearly not ready to return since my mind was forming sentences as labyrinthian as this one.
I went to the bar.
The bar was a small room behind the check-in desk. It was manned by Matthew, who had poured my morning coffee, checked me in the day before, carried my bag upstairs, listened sympathetically to my description of the witch who dissed my push-pin art and now poured me a chardonnay. There were two couples in the bar: an older woman and her elderly mother, and s heavy lorry driver and his wife.
The elderly mother fascinated me because although she was obviously quite old, she still carried an ample amount of flesh quite comfortably, oddly fit with it, like a stocky athlete.
I sipped my wine and listened to them discuss roundabouts, motorways, and dreadful accidents, until the mother and daughter said goodnight. Heavy Lorry Drive and his wife turned to me, eager to continue to chat, belying so much of what I had always believed about British reserve. After a few exchanges of the basic, visiting from where and how long and why, Heavy Lorry Driver told me, “That woman was an evacuee here during the war.”
So the impression I had carried all this while of a benevolent haunting at the Ebury Hotel made sense. I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but I accepted that it made sense. And yet, it didn’t.
“She says the house was full of soldiers.”
Canterbury is an hour’s drive from Dover. I’d noticed the motorway signs on the roundabout above the pedestrian underpass that led into the city proper. Why would the Brits evacuate children closer to the invasion point, and more directly under the flight path of the Luftwaffe heading for London?
I chose not to challenge Heavy Lorry Driver. It was not his story and not his claim. Instead, the wine I had drunk and the time I’d spent alone propelled me into telling him and his wife about my novel. They hummed and clucked in a gratifying manner. We talked about the war in general, and our visits to the Imperial War Museum, and then we said goodnight.
The next morning, as Matthew took my breakfast order, I kept a gimlet eye on Evacuee and her daughter, trying to think of a tactful way to approach her and demand her personal history while she buttered her toast. As it turned out, she found me. When I returned from a stroll in the charming and green back garden of the house (everything in Kent is charming and green), the Heavy Lorry Driver’s wife bid me farewell in the bar. The Evacuee, sitting in the bar with her daughter, said to me, “You were here last night, weren’t you?” I wasted no further time.
Her father had been garrisoned in a town nearby and she and her mother moved into one of the apartments around the house to be closer to him. She was not part of the official UK evacuation program, known as Operation Pied Piper (subtle, UK). The house was indeed full of soldiers. Mr. and Mrs. Clare, the owners, whom she spoke of as though they had just left for the market, tasked her with looking after their two young sons, one three years old, one an infant. Evacuee herself was “five when the war began, and ten when it ended.”
She used to take the Clare boys into town. “It was a different time,” she added, as though the past were charming and green and not, say, World War II.
I thought her mother a bloody fool dragging her daughter deeper into harm, and the Clares even worse. Canterbury was badly hit during the war. According to Kent Online, 800 buildings were destroyed in the June 1942 Baedeker raid, and 43 people lost their lives. (A photograph of the monument to the Baedeker raid is displayed in an earlier post.)
They would have been better off in the Highlands, or Wales. But I suppose they were all just keeping calm and carrying on, allowing a six-year-old girl to push a pram a mile to the market town, with a three-year-old in tow. And here she was now, a coincidence, she said; her daughter just picked the place at random for their holiday. I guess they stayed in Kent after the war. Who could blame them. I wanted to stay in Kent forever. However, it was my last day in England. I had one last visit to make, to the Cathedral.
The next morning, I ate a very good breakfast, with a generous cold buffet spread augmented by a hot breakfast to order. B&B’s can vary. I stayed in one in Notting Hill where the second “B” was a croissant with a pat of butter in a baggie tied around the doorknob. But not so the Ebury. It has a proper dining room (and presumably a proper kitchen, since someone cooked the breakfast.) The house itself was a lovely place, a rambling three-story brick Victorian with arched doorways and bay windows. Some of the guests at breakfast were staying in the nearby cottages and apartments that were also part of the place. I knew it had a history. I sensed it had housed many lives. The spirit of the place was a kind of resolute cheer.
Because it was a mile outside of town, and because there was a car park, most of the other guests were English. This tree adorned the car park.
Off to Canterbury! I’m a fan of walking tours, particularly when a visit is short. They are good for solo travelers, so that you have someone with whom to exclaim. One of my regrets about how my library school career unfolded is that when I started the program, the school offered a course called “Researching Local History” whose final project was to design a walking tour (what fun!) but it was taught during the day and then it fell off the curriculum entirely. (My tour, since you ask, would have been “The History of the Piano in Astoria,” and it would not have been walkable except to the extremely athletic.)
I bought a ticket at the Roman Museum in Canterbury (apparently on the basement floor, there is a mosaic going back to Roman times) and then meandered to the signpost at the Buttermarket just outside the entry gates to the Cathedral, where our guide was already addressing the other middle-aged women who were part of the tour.
In order to be a guide and to wear the sash that adorns official guides, you must attend a six-month class that meets twice-weekly and pass an exam. Further education is required if you wish to wear the sash that proclaims you a guide of the interior of the Cathedral. Our guide had both, and was knowledgeable and fun.
The history of Canterbury is haunted by two Henrys. The first is Henry II, whose frustration with his old drinking buddy Thomas a Becket led to an outburst which inspired four knights to gallop off to Canterbury and stab to death Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. (The traditional understanding is that Henry II exclaimed “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”)
Two points here: the walking tour guide mentioned that riders into Canterbury, arriving at the crest of the hill overlooking the town, would, should they arrive in the evening, urge their steeds from a trot into a “canter” in order to get into the town before the city gates closed. In other words, the rush for the gate gave the name to the gait.
Second, two of the guides I spoke with during my visit made reference to the four knights: on this stop stood the inn where the four knights are said to have stayed the night before the murder, and, it is rumored that that tree is where the four knights tied up their horses. Both times, this merry band of murderers were mentioned as though they required no further frame of reference, just the four knights, as though they had only recently cantered into history, like the Beatles. Wikipedia tells me that these John, Paul, George and Ringos were called Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton. These very French names prove that the close connection between this part of England and France was not unique to my visit.
The second Henry is of course Henry VIII, who established the Church of England, or, in the words of the guides of Canterbury, “destroyed the monasteries.” He destroyed a lot of monasteries in Canterbury, including the one at the Cathedral. Being a monk at Canterbury Cathedral seemed like a really plum job for a monk, I mentioned to the walking guide. How did one get a gig like that? Did you have to be really good at monking? Was Canterbury Cathedral a promotion? The other ladies on the walking tour thought this a hilarious question, but I admit to a certain ignorance when it comes to religious jobs of the Middle Ages. Women could only be nuns, but men could be priests or monks, bishops or cardinals, friars or priors. (I may be wrong about this; do let me know.)
The walking tour was meant to last two hours, but the guide extended a half hour longer, no doubt charmed by my ecclesiastical questions. The tour took us onto the grounds of the Cathedral, but not into the Cathedral itself. A few of the women decided they would go to evensong that evening so that they could get in free.
Admission is only £12.50 and the Cathedral employs a huge staff, as a display of signs outside inform you—stained glass makers, groundskeepers, medieval manuscript restorers. ecclesiastics and so on—so I wasn’t going to begrudge the place £12.50. Also, I doubted I could make it to evensong. Despite being the youngest of the lot on the tour, I tired first and set the precedent for sitting on a medieval wall while the guide detailed the destruction of the monasteries.
Afterwards, I retired to the tourist bureau, tea shop and gallery on the main drag. At that point in my trip, I had learned to address the three W’s of a tourist’s need—water, WiFi and a place to wee. Roughly five thousand French teenagers were visiting Canterbury that day. The French chaperones herded their wards through clogged streets. But the two German teachers in the tea room next to me were far more enterprising. Indulging in quiet adult conversation, they were occasionally interrupted by groups of panting teenagers, who were being dispatched on some kind of historical scavenger hunt. “Where did Henry II something something something?” the teachers asked them. “Was it A) something something, B) something something or C) I still can’t hear you.” And out the teenagers would troop again, leaving their clever teachers in peace to drink tea and chat.
I bought a ticket to a punting tour. In Cambridge, I thought I was too cool for a punting tour and then realized that I abandoned the quest for cool years ago. Punting along the Cam with a guide was delightful. I determined I would do the same along the Stroud, the so-called river that runs through Canterbury. The next tour didn’t take place until 4:15. I could take in no further fact nor ancient stone.
“I’m absolutely spent,” I said to the young woman who sold me the river ticket. “I need a place to sit and stare.”
“There’s a park by the West City Gate,” she told me. “It’s nice and quiet.”
I walked along to the park and there I met this tree.
The Tree’s Tale
Poems are made by fools like me, the poet wrote. But only God can make a tree.
Poems and cathedrals are made, and turbulent priests murdered, monasteries destroyed and cities bombed, by fools like us. I have titled this post “The Tree’s Tale,” but of course trees tell no tales. We look upon a tree such as this and imagine the tales it could tell. Does it remember the Romans? The Four Knights and their greatest hit, “Murder in the Cathedral”? Does it remember how it absorbed into its leaves the smoke from the burning monasteries? The smoke when the Nazis bombed the town? (They say the Home Guard lit fires all around the Cathedral to give the impression to the Luftwaffe that they Cathedral was already on fire.)
I felt more reverence to that tree than I ever would, or ever will, to any cathedral, or anything made by man. I felt true awe. I sat in its company for a good long time and tried to impress the sensation of being in its company into my brain, so I could hold the sensation forever, so that I could summon it when I was trying to meditate, or pray, or simply silence the clamor in my head with the memory of something long-enduring and majestic, with no ideology beyond living life.
I sat by the tree while ten-year-old boys nearby played football (soccer) and I did not suggest that they paint a picture or write a story. (See: The Witch’s Tale.) The tree and I just let them play.
Let’s take just one more look at the tree.
Perhaps fittingly, I arrived in Canterbury footsore, as Chaucer’s pilgrims did. I had spent three days in London, which was an overcrowded madhouse, and I say this as a New Yorker who works in midtown. My day trip to Cambridge did little to alleviate my stress, as I raced from my centrally-located (and well paid-for) hotel to get to the tourist office. I arrived at 4:54 to find my way barred by a teenager. “We’re closing,” she said. (The office closes at 5:00.) I managed to secure a $5.00 map off of her begrudging self, to attend an Evensong service at Kings College, where my Episcopalian confirmation training kicked in enough to keep my standing, sitting and kneeling in all the right places.
Dinner at my pricey hotel, and then to bed. I awoke to the sound of water rushing, and nearby dripping. Well, it was England, I thought, so rain. But no, the dripping was too close, so I investigated and discovered water dripping from the ceiling in my bathroom. Not a drip-drip-drip, but several streams of dripping, forming a syncopation of rhythm. Also, a crack was forming in the ceiling, just above the toilet, so when I sat, as one must, my head was soaked.
I called the front desk, who said, “OK, we’ll send someone up in a minute.”
Two hours later, daringly showered and packed, I arrived at the front desk. As I mentioned, this, the Hotel du Vin, was meant to be my splash-out hotel, not my splash-on.
“It’s an old building,” said one of the concierges.
“Right, well, there are cracks,” I said. Both concierges, not natives of England and recently enough departed from their teenaged years to remember the masks of eye-rolling forbearance, as in how big a deal is she going to make of this? “Look, it’s your building,” I said and watched their expressions shift to something akin to (had they been actual Englanders) well that’s just it, innit? Not our building, is it?
“That water damage is not going to stop,” I offered as my parting salvo. “Could I leave my bag here, please, until I leave for the station? By the way, is there a bus that could take me to the station, or should I just call a cab?”
“You can walk,” said the other concierge. “It’s an easy walk. Ten minutes. I’ll draw you a map.”
She drew the map, but perhaps a punishment for complaining about water pouring through the ceiling, I was sent on not an easy walk. I was by then walking 8-10 miles a day, so not quite a softie. However, my bewildered exhaustion drew the attention of a nice minister and her husband, and conversing with them shortened the (admittedly beautiful) train ride to London. I was afraid of coming off like a chatty American, because Brits think all Americans are chatty, and I’m chatty to begin with, but I learned a lot about them: that he had proposed to her in New York, at Ground Zero when it was still a steaming pile of rubble (I didn’t enquire why they went there; I will never understand why tourists do); that she used to be the minister in a men’s prison, until she had kids; that they had two kids; that they were having a romantic weekend in London and that this to them was made manifest by taking in the Harry Potter play.
(“Have you read ‘Peter Pan’?” the husband whispered to me, since we were on the subject of children’s literature. “Do you remember the part where the fairies are coming home in the morning from an orgy?” At this, I realized I had not read Peter Pan, but probably merely looked at some Disney picture-book version of it.“My boy Michael asked me what an orgy was and I said a party and now I’m scared to death of what he’ll say at kindergarten.”)
So off to Canterbury on the high-speed train, I maintained British silence until I could stand it no longer. “Why is this train so crowded?” I asked the young woman in the next seat.
“People getting off work,” she shrugged. It was three in the afternoon. “People getting away for the weekend.” It was Thursday.
“Seems a bit of a slog,” I said, although I realized that several of my co-workers do virtually the same commute, and they do it to live in crowded Long Island, not in a verdant countryside, caressed by swollen clouds.
“Kent,” said the young woman when she saw me press my fingers against the window. “You’re in Kent.”
“I love Kent,” I said. “It’s so English.”
“I love Kent, too,” she said. “I’ll never leave it.”
By the time I reached Canterbury, it looked as though we were in store for serious rain. It had only rained once during my English vacation, and at the time, I was in the British Library, having a coffee, watching the lightning fork the sky.
Now pulling up in front of the Ebury Hotel, I only hoped it wouldn’t rain just then, because the Ebury was far further out of town that I had reckoned and I was still holding out the hope of a decent meal in England.
“It is only a short walk into town,” said the hotelier, Matthew.
It was only a mile, after all.
I settled in on the patio of the “very good” French restaurant Matthew had recommended (it was a chain), and it was there that I met the witch.
The Witch’s Tale
The patio faced the cobblestoned court square of the town. In the twilight, pre-teen boys practiced, and failed at, their skateboard tricks. Failure meant that the skateboard sailed one or two feet into the air and then clattered to the cobblestones in a manner that the black-haired woman sitting at the corner of the patio with her husband found distracting.
“People come here to relax,” I overheard her telling the waitress.
She complained about various other things in a manner which made me want to apologize to the waitress (my therapist and I have yet to heal me of this compulsion). But then, bells chimed and I raised my head like a rapturous idiot, like some peasant girl in a movie on her journey to sainthood, played by Jennifer Jones or Ingrid Bergman, hearing the voice of God.
“Is that the Cathedral?” I asked, so dumb and humble that the husband took pity on me, and then so did the wife. Too bad I had come at such a time, they told me, the Cathedral was undergoing renovations. If I went the next day at Evensong, I wouldn’t have to pay to get in. How long was I here for?
When the wife went to the restroom, the husband told me that she was an artist. She’d earned her art degree here in Kent, and then her master’s in London. We then ate and drank privately until a particularly loud clatter of skateboard startled us back into a community.
I shook my head at the sound.
“I know!” cried the wife. “Why must they do that! Paint a picture! Write a story!”
Well, I for one thought they did that because they were ten-year-old boys, and for a ten-year-old boy, mastering a useless physical skill is its own delight. But since she said, “Paint a picture,” I went to her, unwisely emboldened by the wine I’d drunk, the miles I’d traveled, the nice minister on the train, the orgiastic fairies of Peter Pan, the ardent Miss Kent . . .
“Your husband says you’re an artist,” I said. “I do these.”
I showed her my push-pin art on my phone.
She took my phone and began swiping.
“Do you have OCD?” she asked.
“Sorry?” I asked.
“What’s this? Magritte.” Swipe. “Munch. Who’s this meant to be?”
“Am I meant to take this seriously?”
“I just do it for fun,” I said. “It’s relaxing. I work in a cubicle farm. My colleagues like it, and I’ve learned a lot.”
“Oh? Like what? What have you learned?”
And here I confess to an is-that-the-Cathedral level of stupidity. The hostility in her tone was rising like a cobra ready to strike and I should have backed away.
“Oh, you know. How to direct the eye. How to saturate color, how to diffuse it with clear push-pins. I’m limited, you know, because I’m dealing with push-pins . . . ” I laughed but her eyes were by then slits.
“Look, do you want my honest opinion?”
Again, that question never leads to anything good. It never leads to I think you’re the whole package and the only one for me or this is the best manuscript that’s come across my desk in years or no, actually, that skirt makes your butt look quite flat.
“I think it’s absolute crap,” said the woman. “Absolute crap. This paint-by-numbers nonsense, this . . . ” Swipe, swipe, swipe. “Crap. Crap. These people, these people with no training at all, who think they can just . . . I don’t mean to upset you. But it’s absolute, utter crap!”
“It’s just for fun. It brightens up the nine-to-five.”
“It’s crap. I don’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset,” I said.
I wasn’t. My therapist and I have managed to heal this compulsion, of becoming upset because other people are upset. Push-pin art has been to me like those desktop Zen gardens that were popular awhile back, or like a scavenger hunt of the mind. One’s resources are very limited. Even in a mosaic, the artist can shape the tessera (the name for an individual mosaic piece, for you crossword puzzle enthusiasts) but push-pins are almost always round. They come in only a few colors. The challenge of how to re-create a certain visual impact through a standard-issue office supply has been a soothing challenge to occupy me while I try to tease out solutions to the problems of my day job. The cubicle murals, in fact, had attracted so much congregating at my desk that I had decided to cease operations, even before this encounter.
“It’s crap. Crap. I don’t care how many Instagram followers you have.”
“I don’t have that many, actually.” Gently, I reclaimed my phone. Her husband had been laughing this whole time. “I’ll leave you alone now. Enjoy your dessert.”
“Oh, we will!” snapped the woman.
Walking back to the hotel, I reflected on how many times she had snapped “I don’t mean to upset you!” when upsetting me was clearly her aim. Amateur comes from amator, Latin for lover, and I did my push-pin art because I loved it. But there was no ego in it.
And that woman’s rage definitely came from ego. I tried to think of what occurrence, in my own field, would inspire a similar spite from me.
Maybe someone getting a three-book deal from a publisher based on a joke tucked into a fortune cookie? But would I say crap two dozen times?
But there was no money involved, no fame, no acclaim. Just me messing around with the masters using push-pins. I couldn’t figure it out.
The next day, I realized she must have been a witch. The kind the heroine meets on her journey in a fairy tale. The kind who tests her.
April 28 was Independent Bookstore Day, a day I usually let pass me by, although I do patronize my local bookstore, The Astoria Bookshop, for most of my book needs (the exception being out-of-print books or university presses). The Astoria Bookshop was the first (or last, depending on where you live) on the Independent Bookstore Day Crawl, trek through Astoria, Long Island City, Greenpoint and Williamsburg.
I recently experienced a professional setback that sent me down a spiral of sadness. Further, it has been rainy, cold and overcast throughout our so-called “spring” in New York City. I was grey inside and out. But Saturday was a lovely sun-kissed day, and I decided to embark on a literary adventure.
All biblophiles will say they have too many books, but, having recently packed up two bookcases in anticipation of a living room remodel, I can state firmly that I have too many books. They are sitting in boxes and piled on a table in my bedroom. No amount of purging—or, as we say in the library trade, “de-accessioning”—seems to cull the population. I have been researching and writing a novel about young women in British Intelligence during World War II for what seems like a quarter of my life, and between Atlas Obscura alerting me to new weird facts about the war, and AbeBooks on hand to supply me with obscure volumes, I keep acquiring and now own more books than I could read in a year if I quit my job and wrote nothing.
So to acquire more books simply to lift my mood seemed extravagant. I determined I would make one a gift, as my grand-nephew (that’s right; deal with it) is coming up on a birthday. Also, I would make one a goal, as I want my friend Sam to read William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. Sam and I have recently read John Williams’ Stoner and Augustus, and after reading Stoner, I thought he would like So Long, See You Tomorrow. Williams and Maxwell are both sad, dead, twentieth-century American males.
First stop, the Astoria Bookshop. No William Maxwell, so I decided to go for Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. With it in hand, I edged toward the register (it was very crowded, and it was story hour), when I saw Galia Bernstein’s I Am a Cat, and chose it instead for my grand-nephew, who lives in a household without a cat.
After the Astoria Bookshop, I hopped on the Q102 to take me to Long Island City, crossed the Plaza, and became thoroughly lost. Every person I asked for directions seemed also to be lost, until I found a young father with a baby in a stroller, who sent me in the right director to Book Culture.
Book Culture was celebrating the day with coffee, donuts and orange juice. No Maxwell there, either. I went ahead with How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and the friendly young women at the counter helped me determine how I could best get to Word, in Greenpoint, without having to cross the Pulaski Bridge on foot.
I took the B62 over the bridge and into Brooklyn, then walked, a lot, until I found Word. No Maxwell. I purchased some sticker books for the grand-nephew. I also bought a novel by Henry Green, whose novel Caught, about the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during the Blitz, I had just bought at the Strand kiosk at the southend of Central Park earlier in the week, on a rare sunny day.
I hope you’re sensing a theme.
Word was having a “blind date with a book,” where any purchase scored you a book wrapped in brown paper. Mine turned out to be a galley of a book about childbirth and drug addiction, so I politely handed it back. Word was also the first place I encountered a fellow traveler, who was coming from the other direction. She seemed confident about Book Culture but leery of The Astoria Bookshop, and waved away my attempt to tell her about how to use buses.
I paused along Franklin Street for sustenance, a bathroom and better Wi-Fi. I was trying to live-tweet my journey.
Then I walked down Franklin Street for a little over a mile, until the cross streets changed from named streets to numbered ones. At 4th Street, I turned left and made it to McNally Jackson.
And there I found Maxwell!
My card was now full!
My completed card was confiscated by the man behind the counter. It will now be entered into a raffle in which the winner will receive . . . well, I’ll let you guess.
I took the B32 up Franklin, over the Pulaski Bridge, all the way to Long Island City, where I was lucky enough to catch the Q69, which took me down 21st Street and left me at Broadway.
I then returned to my home base.
And then I came home, footsore but sunny.
The rule of four
Bookstores visited: four
Books purchased: four, plus three sticker books
Buses taken: four
Hours taken: four
Miles walked: 4.89
Ollie had a rough weekend, apparently, like most of us last weekend, and decided to leave her enclosure at the Washington Zoo, which she shared with two male bobcats. The full headline of the article in The New York Times was “Ollie, a Standoffish Bobcat, is Missing From the National Zoo.” The Times was merely quoting the Zoo’s “curator of great cats” (why, I wonder, has my library school never posted a position quite that cool-sounding on the school listserv?), who described her in rather lengthy and judgmental detail, adding that she was “not super friendly,” and that “it would be extremely easy on us if she were a cat who would come when called, but that’s not who this individual is.”
I puzzled that the curator of great cats was so perturbed by her aloofness. Is he not the curator of great cats? Has he met a cat? Does he taxonomize them by friendliness, rather than species? Are Ollie’s two enclosure-mates models of affability? The curator of great cats added crankily, “We’re looking for a cat who could literally be sitting in a tree right next to us,” as if elusiveness and tree-climbing were traits peculiar to “this individual.” (And who refers to a cat as an “individual”? Back in my youth, “individual” and “this person” were ways in which my gay friends would seek my romantic advice without outing themselves: “This individual is very possessive, so I don’t want to upset this person.”)
On the #Ollie the Bobcat Twitter feed (because of course), one individual tweeted: “Ollie has been criticized as “very standoffish” and “not super friendly.” Because I guess there’s no right way to be a female BOBCAT either.”
And then Ollie returned. Or perhaps she never left. (She could have literally been sitting in a tree right next to us.) She was spotted near the birdcage by a keen-eyed tourist and returned to her enclosure, after receiving two stitches in her left paw and a round of booster shots.
Her escapades generated twelve pages of news headlines on Google. Ollie stories were reported in France and the U.K., and her return provoked a number of think pieces in which she was used as a great symbol of whatever the writer had in mind.
“She was every American worker, underappreciated, shunted to the side,” wrote Petula Dvorak in The Washington Post. “The bobcat habitat wasn’t even on the zoo’s main circle around Big Cat mountain, just a little culvert, no more glamorous than the accounts payable or customer service department.”
This is the only news I wanted to follow this week.
I have recently finished a novel which I spent eight years researching and writing. I am also nearing the end of my master’s degree in library and information science; I’m at the beginning of the semester of my second-to-last class. I also quit my part-time gig reviewing books for one of the trades. Finally, the current political climate is one I find distressing. All of which combines to send me into literature. I can read what I like and I have more time to do it.
For the past two years, most of what I’ve read has been focused on WWII or library science, so to plunge now, hedonistically, wantonly, into reading what I like is a heady experience, and I intend to document it.
Going forward, I will do it in real time, but for the month of January, here is what I’ve read.
Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Where I got it: Christmas gift from a colleague
What I thought: Nicely built world, with Mitchell a bit of a show-off with his prose. The entire long middle section, which someone else described (quite accurately, I think) as a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go could have used a firmer edit.
Title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery
Where I got it: Second-hand bookstore on Fourth Avenue
What I thought: I just adored the characters and the setting. The misanthropic, sneaky concierge: “To be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age,” and the rebellious bourgeois 12-year-old who is one of the residents in the luxury building the concierge tends, who are soulmates unbeknownst to them.
Title: Margaret the First
Author: Danielle Dutton
Where I got it: ARC from publisher
What I thought: A vividly imagined and uniquely crafted novel about Margaret, Duchess of Cavendish, a free-thinking, dream-hounded, imaginative noblewoman whom the newspapers of her day dubbed “Mad Madge.” Poetic, almost hallucinatory prose takes us into the restless, unhappy, seeking mind of Margaret, a woman born in the wrong time.
Please note: This piece was originally published by the defunct website Chicklit and I am republishing it here in honor of Shirley Hazzard who died yesterday, December 13, 2016. I remain a fan.
“We have mysterious inclinations. We have our own intuitions, our individuality toward what we want to read, and we developed that from childhood. We don’t know why. Nobody can explain it to us.”
From Shirley Hazzard’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, November, 2003
Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1931, the daughter of expatriates (a Scotswoman and a Welshman). Although her family suffered no exceptional financial hardship enduring first the Great Depression and then war, she was constantly aware of the deprivation around her, particularly that of veterans of the first world war. Her own deprivation was cultural; she heard little music and saw almost no visual art. Australia was still considered a colonial backwater. Books, she has said in interviews, were her lifeline. After World War II, when Hazzard was 16, her family moved to Hong Kong, where her father worked as a trade commissioner and Hazzard worked in the office of a branch of Special Operations. There were later moves, to New Zealand and then, for Hazzard alone, to Italy, where she worked as a translator for the United Nations. She also worked for the United Nations in New York before she quit, in the mid-60s, to devote herself to writing.
And from these experiences came are her themes: the devastation of war. The political infighting that all but cripples the social institutions set up for the public good. The loss of the concept of nation. The loss of the concept of home. The belief that home can be found in another person, or, failing that (and it always fails), in books and in poetry. Her characters are strangers in a strange land — exiles, orphans, refugees. They fall in love at first sight, forever, often with only fragments of one another (“Impressions came and went in them, like quick tides.”) Romantic love is a chronic fever from which they never recover. (“He had been so long creating this moment that it could not be new to either of them.”) Yet they belong together. They need each other. Most of all, they need to belong, and never will.
In one of the stories in the collection called “People in Glass Houses”, a satire of the United Nations, Hazzard writes:
“The nature . . . of the Organization such as to attract people of character; having attracted them, it found it could not afford them, for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures. No new country, no new language or way of life, no marriage or involvement of war could have so effectively altered and unified the way in which these people presented themselves to the world.”
Hazzard’s characters are exceptions to this “subordination of individual gifts to general procedures. She writes about the war hero who sets himself the task of recording “the consequences of war within an ancient and vanishing society”, the idealistic overeducated secretary who means to rebuild the world and ends up serving tea, the working-class private scorned for his “over”-sensitivity — who sustain themselves with pocket editions of Dickens and Shakespeare. Their exceptionality invites scorn. (“‘You have enough books for now,’” a character tells another, knowing, “none better, the enemy when she saw it.”) Yet they all struggle for nourishment. Their struggle is their greatest strength, and their greatest hardship.
In The Bay of Noon, English-born Jenny (exiled to South Africa for the duration of the war) arrives in post-war Italy to work with one of the U.N.-type agencies that usually employ (and inevitably disillusion) Hazzard’s heroines. Jenny is no Henry James-type innocent inviting seduction from jaded continentals; although she does lack sophistication, she is not inexperienced. She has been fractured by her experience, displaced during the war, continuously separated from her family and home.
“Whenever the matter came up, people expressed anguish over that uprooting of mine. Yet — although the sufferings of children are the worst, being inextinguishable — children themselves seldom have a proper sense of their own tragedy, discounting and keeping hidden the true horrors of their short lives, humbling imagining real calamity to be some prestigious drama of the grown-up world. . . . I saw myself . . . insignificant in the convulsions of war, and believed I had no cause for complaint in a world where soldiers died and cities were devastated. It is only in retrospect I know myself to have been among the victims of war . . .”
What Jenny finds in Naples is the sense of community she has always lacked. She befriends Gioconda, who has written a popular, tragic, autobiographical novel, and Gianni, her lover, who directed the film made of it. Gioconda and Gianni pay her an attention she has never known, praising her, patronizing her, but most gratifyingly, drawing her into their bruising, but not fatal, drama.
The Transit of Venus rests lightly on a Jane Austen frame — close, orphaned, penniless sisters, the sweet blonde Grace and the aloof, clever Caro, and an older, sighing, put-upon half-sister who has cared for them throughout the war. The beauty is immediately snatched up as a bride, though not without attracting the resentment of her future in-laws and their circle. The sisters are thought to lack appreciation for the favor that is being done for them. Even Grace’s future husband, courting her at the sisters’ London apartment, finds “these women uncommonly self-possessed for their situation. They seemed scarcely conscious of being Australians in a furnished flat. He would have liked them to be more impressed by his having come, and instead caught himself living up to what he thought might be their standards and hoping they would not guess the effort incurred.”
Caro is studying for a civil service examination, which Grace’s fiancé believes “she would never pass . . . It had only recently been opened to women and he had never heard of a woman passing it.”
But Caro surpasses all the other entrants, although it still means nothing, the whole process is “a way of having people with languages” in the organization “without giving them career service.” In a real Jane Austen novel, a character observes, “man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal,” but The Transit of Venus demonstrates that choice does no one any favors. Caro rejects ardent, scholarly Ted Tice – the nice guy – who pleads, “`I’ve no charm at the best of times, and nothing is less charming than unwanted love. But as we’re parting soon I must say that I hope you’ll think of me and let me write to you. And eventually let me love you.’”
And write he does, letters which he revises and struggles over, letters which he lives for (this will be echoed in Hazzard’s next novel, The Great Fire.) But Caro falls in love with a smug son of privilege — the cad — who does not annoy her by idolizing her but instead regards seducing her as an opportunity to “violate . . . her pride or her integrity.”
Eventually, Caro marries a decent man, and Ted Tice marries a good woman, but The Transit of Venus follows the characters through thirty years of their choices, misgivings, and rewards, separations and reunions, and even does Grace the favor of revisiting her late in the marriage, and dispelling the fiction that the placid beauty lives happily ever after in a conventional marriage, without reflection or regrets of her own.
The Great Fire takes place in 1947, in occupied Japan and involves characters who take part in the reconstruction of the country after the “great fire” that was Hiroshima, although the “great fire” describes many other consuming forces, including the passion of love. Peter Exley, whose fate will be sealed by an impulsive act of humanity, is there to administer the trials of war criminals. Major Aldred Leith arrives at a small settlement near Hiroshima, run by an awful pair of Australians for whom post-war reconstruction is a career stepping-stone, while Leith, the son of a famous novelist, is there to write the story of the conquered, having spent the two years since the end of the war walking across China. “He’d grown up in China and Indochina, and knew that these places were evaporating, transforming. The last days of their centuries should be witnessed and recounted by someone who was not a spy, not a sociologist, beholden to no one.”
Leith is indeed beholden to no one, distanced from his father, divorced from his wartime bride, losing hold even of the correspondence which seems to be his lifeblood. But the awful Australians have two children — a dying son, Benedict and a radiant daughter, Helen and the three bond instantly through their love of languages and books.
Helen and Leith fall in love, of course, but do not seem to be able to articulate it until Leith travels to Hong Kong to visit his friend Exley. For the first time in years, he receives letters from “home” in the form of Ben and Helen and suffers the suspense of posting his reply: “he thought that by tomorrow Helen might have his letter.” Upon his return, they come together, Leith aged thirty-three, Helen seventeen (and, some critics have complained, impossibly precocious), the gossip about them more daring than their actual behavior.
[Leith] went to his own room and to his table – to those papers where the ruined continents and cultures and existences that had consumed his mind and body for years had given place to her story and his. He could not consider this a reduction – the one theme having embroiled the century and the world, and the other recasting his single fleeting miraculous life. Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him, he had recovered a great desire to live completely; by which he meant, with her.
Shirley Hazzard writes like a dream, by which I do not mean merely that her writing is beautiful or precise, but also that it evokes the same intense, fleeting, mysterious emotions as a dream. She does not write page turners. You don’t want to turn her pages so much as dwell on them. A character describes her mother’s death: “They wrote to me ‘Her heart gave out’ — her heart that had, I suppose, always been giving out, to everybody, with no revitalizing intake of grievance or self-pity. . . . ” Hazzard writes with a poet’s economy and clarity and casually inserts this kind of piercing observation that will cause you to look up from the book, close it on your thumb to keep your place, and fall into a reverie.
In this essay, I have focused on the books of Hazzard’s that are most likely to be found in a bookstore. Many are out of print.
Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963)
The Evening of the Holiday (1966)
People in Glass Houses (1967)
The Bay of Noon (1970)
The Transit of Venus (1981), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
The Great Fire (2003), winner of the National Book Award for Fiction
Defeat of an Ideal: A Study of the Self-Destruction of the United Nations (1973)
Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case (1990)
Greene on Capri (2000)
At first, I regretted that the crowd was shouting louder, wasn’t giving out the sort of orgasmic screams you hear at the opera after an aria, because I wanted Ben Miles – the entire cast of Wolf Hall, but more than any of the others, Ben Miles, to know that we loved him. Later, on my way home, I reflected that perhaps a greater tribute than screaming applause (although we the audience did scream and applaud) was our silence. When Henry VIII signs five death warrants, he sits in a shaft of fog-shrouded light, at a table. Cromwell hands him a warrant. The king pauses, then signs. Rafe Sadler (who is played in the PBS series by Thomas Brodie Sangster, who I admire to excess, but that’s another story) who is played by Joshua Silver, steps forward, sprinkles powder to dry the fresh ink of the signature, removes the document and steps back into his position of relative shadow.
This happened five times, without dialogue, without music. I could hear the air whooshing from the cooling vents in the Winter Garden Theater (my father was in HVAC, so I notice these things). From the audience, there was no coughing, no rustling. There was not a throat clearing. I was aware of the spot on my spine that these days aches when I’ve been sitting too long and we were now entering the sixth hour of theater, but I compared my mild suffering–much like the many fervent clergy who had been part of the five hours of drama preceeding this moment, who flamboyantly proclaimed their willingness to suffer to achieve salvation–to that of what Ben Miles must be experiencing. For two and half hours that afternoon, and two and a half hours that evening, he had been onstage the entire time. He would start to exit a scene, then pivot to face a new set of players, like a knight on a chessboard. He rarely (and I do mean rarely) even sat down. When he wasn’t standing or moving, he was kneeling to a king or a bishop, a former queen, a queen to be.
Wolf Hall is being presented on Broadway by the RSC in two discrete plays: Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies, each based upon the book of the same title. They are the first two books (each won the Booker prize, a rarity for a series) of a trilogy by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell, and his role during part of the reign of King Henry VIII. Tudor England has always interested me, since Anne of a Thousand Days, which I didn’t get to see when it was first released but read the book, which was most likely a novelization of a screenplay based on a play, but I was a child at the time, so I read anything I could get my hands on. I’m a bit more discriminating now, and perhaps I’m fairly arrogant about my own writing, but it is rare that I read a novel by a contemporary author and think, maybe I should just hang this up and open a wine bar, because I will never be that. But that is how I felt when I read Wolf Hall, and I proceeded, while waiting for Bring Up the Bodies, to read her other writings, and to generally worship Hilary Mantel (see my earlier post, “History Dames”). For me, the Broadway production of Wolf Hall was among the best theater I have ever seen.
The dialogue is witty and contemporary without seeming anachronistic. Much of it is taken directly from the books, so much so that the Tony nominating committee has decided that Hilary Mantel should be credited as a co-playwright. The production values are of the latest trend for the RSC — large, high sets with minimal props (tables, chairs) brought on and removed by the actors, with the interesting (and well-used in this case) innovation of strips of fire to indicate the fire of a fireplace and also the mayhem of vandalizing fire. This firestrip was also put to use in the recent and uneasy Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom. That production suffered, as Wolf Hall does not, with a number of “look at me! I’m acting!” performances. You don’t look at the acting in Wolf Hall because you are watching the characters–easily manipulated Henry, overplaying-her-hand Anne, boasting George Boleyn, and always the crafty, patient, loyal and vengeful Cromwell. Thanks to the skill of the writing and acting, they are swiftly familiar and often exasperating, like more clever and less clumsy versions of people you already know.
All that said, this might not be the play for you. This was a self-selecting audience: one with enough money for the tickets (if you buy tickets to both you get a break, but it’s still $220 for a day’s entertainment) and enough education and interest in this specific area of history. A man turned around during intermission of the first play to ask if I was a teacher (I’ve learned that if, while sitting in the audience at a play, you mention more than two other plays, people think you are a teacher.) He told me that he had taught high school English for 38 years, which made him, in my eyes, a far greater martyr than Sir Thomas More on stage there. The woman in the next seat for the second play spoke at length to me about the novels, reminding me of bits of dialogue I’d forgotten.
We audience were primarily women. I’d say 85%. We were all ardent fans already. From the conversations I had with seatmates, ladies-in-waiting for the restroom, and people at the next table at dinner (during the dinner break, which comes relatively early, so it was easy to spot fellow “Wolf Hall-ers”) the audience had read the books and/or but mainly and were watching the PBS series. If you don’t know what you are going to see, you would be lost. There are a few grounding bits of dialogue (“It’s been 18 years!” and “this is 1503!”) but no long expository exchanges of dialogue. The scenes are swift and cinematic, but there is a lot of ground to cover.
Theater is spectacle, and Wolf Hall is spectacular. The stagecraft alone — the lighting and the costumes — are breathtaking. Characters scurry about, becapped, in black, dark grey or foreshadowing blood-red, scurrying across the stage, scheming, betraying, blundering, while Cromwell, who unveils new hard-won skills only when they are needed (“I was a solider.” “I was in the silk trade.” “I was a banker in Florence.”) keeps a ledger of grudges and insults, scores he will settle.
On occasion the busyness stops and we are caught in a tableau, as when Henry signs the death warrants, when Cromwell, spends a last quiet moment with his wife, when meek Jane Seymour, in virginial white, penetrates Cromwell’s many masks with her sincere offering of sympathy for the loss of his wife and daughters. These scenes are lit like a Vermeer painting, except that in Vermeer, women in isolated rooms sit in the illumination of a window, sewing a hem, writing a letter, awaiting their fate, which will be decided in a far different painting, say, a Rembrandt, where sallow men bicker over points of theology and law, or an impromptu militia charges into heedless action.
Henry wanted a son so that upon his death England would not descend into the civil war from which it had only recently emerged. Protestant stirrings were creeping in from the low countries, after the invention of the printing press increased the availability of books, leading to an increase of literacy, leading to the idea that people might want to read Scripture themselves in their native tongue, rather than have it presented to them by a priest. “Is there a Pope in the Bible?” asks Cromwell. “Are there monks, nuns?” Wolf Hall balances these and a dozen other ideas — how harshly grief haunts, the harsh demands of loyalty, the fleeting nature of power — and in doing so creates a world I never wanted to leave, even after five and a half hours.