Notes in the Margin (Part V) - Believer Magazine
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Notes in the Margin (Part V)

Peter Orner
105 Snaps

Robinson

It’s another scene at the kitchen table in a book of kitchen-table scenes. Morning after morning, night after night, the three of them gather at the kitchen table. I don’t have the novel here. It’s January 2020 and I’m on a bus in New Hampshire, heading home after a funeral. 

Some books you don’t need to hold to read. 

Marilynne Robinson’s Home. A reader might be forgiven if the kitchen scenes jumble in memory. But the one I am thinking of is unusual because it breaks a certain established pattern and it’s only, if I remember, fifty or sixty pages into the novel. Glory, her brother Jack, and their father, Reverend Boughton, are all at the kitchen table in Gilead. Jack hasn’t been home very long. Maybe a week at this point. 

Yet after twenty years (the amount of time Ulysses was away from Ithaca), heis, finally, home. Jack is no Ulysses. He’s been an ordinary failure, mostly down in St. Louis. I’m not sure calling him “prodigal” would be accurate. In my dim recollection of the parable, the prodigal son squanders his inheritance. Though it depends on how you define inheritance: it’s clear that Jack doesn’t have much to squander, at least in a material sense. Brains and charisma, sure, but these he’s still got, even in his current ragged state. 

Jack is someone—there are so many—who, once he stumbled, wasn’t able to stop falling down. Glory, too, has limped home. She hasn’t done such a bang-up job out in this misnomer of a real world, either. They’re a family of eight children. The other six are scattered throughout the Midwest, enjoying varying degrees of prosperity. They’ve got kids, jobs, busy lives. Teddy’s a doctor. The others, I forget, but they’re doing better than all right. Glory, though a dedicated teacher, is childless. Her engagement has fallen through. The guy turned out to be a cad. We’re in Iowa during the Eisenhower administration. It makes sense, a spinster daughter returning home to care for her aging father. 

So we know why Glory’s come back. But what about Jack? Glory and Jack’s mother died a few years earlier. On the long list of ways in which Jack’s let down the family: he didn’t turn up at her funeral. I can understand it. A funeral’s a tough way to make a reentrance. But why has he now reappeared in Gilead? And after all these years? I’m not sure we ever get an entirely straight answer, and for this I’m grateful. I wonder if there just comes a time, in all our lives, when we wash up at the only door that will open to us. 

It’s three in the morning and nobody in the old house can sleep. It’s as if all three characters, separate in their beds, are suddenly awakened by a similar sense of dislocation at the same moment. Without a word, they convene at the kitchen table, this humble center of the universe. No one is actually hungry, but even so, Glory begins making pancakes, as if, for her, the ritual of preparing food is the only way to get through this painful reunion. As if the plain fact of hot food, whether they are hungry or not, might act as a kind of balm for agitated souls. 

Why has Jack come home? What’s he done now? Even an ordinary failure can do a hell of a lot of damage, and that damage often involves the cops. It wouldn’t be the first time for Jack. I don’t remember much talk in this brief scene. It culminates in Reverend Boughton falling asleep in his chair and Jack scooping up this once-formidable man and carrying him back to bed like a child. Like I’ve done countless times with my own daughter and son. 

The moment solves nothing, answers nothing. The three of them go back to sleep. They will wake up again in a few hours, groggy and anxious. I don’t think any of these characters mention last night out loud to one another. Still, it happened. Jack picked up his father and carried him back to bed. A beginning, of what we don’t yet know, but a beginning. 

Something else. At one point in the book—whether before or after the scene I just sketched, I can’t tell you—Reverend Boughton demands that Jack, for once, let him look at him.My own father used to say this sort of thing to me, used to plead—“Let me look at you. Hold still”—and I would: I’d hold still a moment before I took off again. But I never did let him look.

Chekhov/Howe

Irving Howe was once a big name. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, his book World of Our Fathers was a fat best seller and sat double-parked on the shelf in every Jewish family room in the United States. In some houses, it was the only book on the shelf. Howe was a critic with a socialist bent, and World of Our Fathers is, I think (I’ve never read it myself), about how Eastern European Jews brought their Pale of Settlement ways to the Lower East Side. Growing up in Chicago, I never saw anybody else read it, either: not my father, not my grandfather, and not my uncles, though all of them owned it. It was a man’s book that men didn’t read. Didn’t we know the story? We were shit on, murdered, et cetera, et cetera, and then we came here, and that stuff, mostly, ceased. 

Turns out, I now know, Howe was a sensitive and mercenary literary critic. He alone kept the names of certain Yiddish writers from being lost in the sinkhole of history. A few months back, in our temple library, while waiting for my daughter to finish Hebrew school (when such idle loitering in public spaces was possible), I came across Howe’s A Critic’s Notebook. Leafing through the collection, I found a brief essay about Chekhov. Howe says what any self-respecting critic should say but never seems to: that anything he’s got to say about Chekhov is entirely useless in the face of the work itself. Go and read Chekhov’s “In the Cart,” Howe says. 

So long, over and out. 

Except he doesn’t leave it there. Being a critic, he can’t help but pontificate for a few pages. He gets paid to produce words. But his upshot is: read the story for yourself.

Days later, I’m in the Dunkin’ Donuts in Grantham, New Hampshire, reading “In the Cart.” It’s 7:30 in the morning and Dunkin’ is crowded with people heading to work and school. An employee walks around handing out free toothpicked samples of Dunkin’s new breakfast sandwich. As far as I’m able to tell, the new breakfast sandwich does not differ significantly from the old breakfast sandwich. But the world is good. People love one another. Dunkin’s got free samples. We strangers grin at one another over a wedge of egg and sausage on pita. 

Meantime, Marya Vasilievna, the village schoolteacher, is on her way to town to collect her wages. It’s a beautiful spring day, but Vasilievna doesn’t notice because she makes this journey once a season and she hates every minute of it. She knows that all the peasants, like Old Semyon, who’s driving her right now, think she makes too much money, that she holds her head too high among them. 

The road to town is muddy and rutted, and the coach is flouncing all over. Old Semyon talks to her, but only sporadically. He mentions that some ruffian was arrested for the murder of Mayor Alekseyev. Then they run into a man named Khanov, who’s traveling along the same road. Khanov is a rich landowner in his forties. A drinker with a haggard face and a sluggard’s expression. He tells them he’s on his way to see a man named Bakvist. Then he says, “I’ve heard he isn’t home!” That’s it; that’s the end of that scene. Not only is Bakvist probably not home, but Khanov is going to see him anyway. Who’s Bakvist? Who knows? Praise Chekhov for allowing even the most minor of enigmas to stand without comment.

They continue on. Marya Vasilievna’s mind wanders back to the many degradations of her life. And then comes this paragraph where she briefly considers marrying Khanov. May Chekhov’s ghost forgive me for chopping it up in the interest of space. 

Be a wife? It was cold in the morning, there was no one to light the stove, the caretaker was never there… Her head ached every day after classes, and after dinner she felt a burning sensation in her chest… Then at night she would dream of exams, peasants, and snowdrifts. And this life had aged her and made her coarse and unattractive; she had become awkward and clumsy, as if she were filled with lead… No one liked her, and her life was passing by miserably, without affection, without the sympathy of friends, and without any interesting acquaintances. What a terrible thing it would be if she fell in love in her position!

I shouldn’t say any more. So simple, so obvious. Why this need to talk when we should be silent? And yet, like Howe, I’ve got to make my couple of bucks. It’s all in the gap between the penultimate sentence above and the last: everything Chekhov knew about me—and you too? That we’re all miserable village schoolteachers and we want to stay that way. My god, imagine the calamities if our stray daydreams came true. 

Brennan I

Maeve Brennan was one of the glamorous ones, one of the stars of The New Yorker’s heyday, from the mid-’50 to the end of the ’60s, and one of the few women staffers. She wrote the famous “Long-Winded Lady” column for “The Talk of the Town.” John Updike said she brought New York to The New Yorker, this displaced Irishwoman with an unrivaled street eye. And there wasn’t much that was long-winded about the long-winded lady. This, I’d say, is what makes her fiction and nonfiction so intimate: she holds back just enough that a reader becomes complicit in any given scene she describes. She evokes, then beckons you to join her. 

In “A Cold Morning,” one of the last “Long-Winded” pieces she published, Brennan writes, “The morning is still and dark, with the touch of anxiety that comes with waiting.” 

Or this more typically brilliant sentence from “A Snowy Night on West Forty-Ninth Street”:

At night, when the big Broadway lights go on, when the lights begin to run around high in the sky and up and down the sides of buildings, when rivers of light start flowing along edges of roofs, and wreaths and diadems begin sparkling from dark corners, and the windows of empty downtown offices begin streaming with watery reflections of brilliance, at that time, when Broadway lights up to make a nighttime empire out of the tumbledown, makeshift daytime world, a powdery pink glow rises up and spreads over the whole area, a cloudy pink, an emanation, like a tent made of air and color.

Just typing that alone made me want to holler out this window at the empty street: Anybody out there read Maeve Brennan? Anybody out there alive? But you see what I mean? How even when she extends a sentence, further develops her examination of a given image from multiple angles, she suggests rather than completes? She leaves us to see for ourselves this nighttime empire of the tumbledown. 

There’s nothing superior about Brennan. She never walks her streets thinking she’s above anybody else—not her readers, not the people she observes so acutely. In a tiny piece from the mid-’50s, “Painful Choice,” she describes a man in a supermarket who’s trying to decide, with the little money he’s got, whether to buy a can of beans, a whole canned dinner, canned soup, or canned chicken à la king. 

He had thirty-seven cents or twenty-nine cents or some sum like that, and he was standing there with the four cans, glaring down at them and all around at the stalls of vegetables and fruit and bread and so on. 

Like so many of the people Maeve Brennan took the time to notice, she was constantly on the verge of ruin. Alcoholism and mental illness, always lurking in the wings, began to take full hold of her in the early ’70s. Stories of Brennan during this period abound. William Maxwell wrote sorrowfully about how her friends and colleagues tried to help her, how it became more and more difficult. Her biographer, Angela Bourke, also writes with generosity, sadness, and compassion about Brennan’s descent. In and out of cheap hotel rooms, institutions. 

When she felt good, she went off her medication and all hell broke loose, like the time she smashed all the windows of a colleague’s office. Whispers around the office. Sometimes she slept in The New Yorker’s women’s bathroom. But most of the time, it seems, she disappeared into the streets she had spent so many hours of her life getting to know. She no longer wrote very much. On occasion, she’d send a piece to William Maxwell, and The New Yorker would publish another “Long-Winded Lady” column. The magazine continued, apparently, to pay her regularly. And so Brennan would show up at The New Yorker offices to collect. Bourke writes: 

She brought a sick pigeon in from the street and nursed it there, and when she got her pay cheque she would cash it at the Morgan Guaranty Trust on the corner of 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, then stand outside, across the street from the office, and hand out cash to passers-by.

Nursing sick pigeons? Handing out cash to strangers in front of a bank? Crazy, sure. But there’s also something beautifully indelible about the stories of her. Maeve Brennan creating her own Maeve Brennan moments. She died in a New York City nursing home, at the age of seventy-six, in 1993. If I ever lose my increasingly tenuous hold, I hope to find myself outside the West Lebanon branch of Ledyard bank, giving money away in Maeve Brennan’s honor. 

I believe what makes Brennan’s work so rare in the firmament is the fact that her gaze is always—always—outward, on the cityscape of New York and her native Dublin, but, more important, on her people, the people on the streets she refused to look past because she was one with them. 

Brennan II

In Maeve Brennan’s story “The Beginning of a Long Story,” there is a mother who is described as having authority only when she’s around her three daughters, or when a stranger comes to the door begging. Ellen, the oldest daughter, the eight-year-old, remembers the day a man knocked and asked her mother if she could spare any old boots. Of course, it was raining. It is usually raining in Maeve Brennan’s Dublin. And few write about rain better.

He was all wet, and his eyes were full of rain. Ellen thought he might be blind, but then she saw it was only that he was all wet, and the rain was so straight and heavy that even at this short distance it fell like a curtain between them.

Ellen’s mother has no boots to spare, but she invites the man inside for tea, and to warm up. How far we’ve come from such kindness. And I think how something might happen when this strange man enters a house with just a mother and three young girls, but all he does in this story, the beginning of a long story that’s never told, is fall asleep. Ellen’s mother leaves him in the kitchen and goes upstairs to attend to the middle daughter, Johanna, who’s ill in bed. Soon, Ellen’s mother, Johanna, and the man in the kitchen are all asleep, and the only people awake in the house are Ellen and her sister Bridget, the four-year-old. (Bridget’s a riot; she spends the first few pages of the story hiding under a carpet.) But it is the stranger I’m thinking about on this rainy summer afternoon in White River Junction, Vermont, the rain pecking the window like somebody’s throwing pebbles. But nobody’s down in the alley throwing pebbles. There’s only this man, alone in someone’s kitchen in rainy 1940s Dublin. He’s sleeping the way a person sleeps when they’re so tired that nothing else matters. Ellen opens the kitchen door and spies on him.

He lay huddled over the table, and his arms were around his head, hiding his face. As she opened the door he spoke out suddenly in a loud voice, but did not move, and she stepped quickly back out of the kitchen and closed the door.

The man, though, continues talking in his sleep. Ellen opens the door again and closes herself in with him. Brennan writes:

She wanted him to be quiet, as he had been, and she thought that if she stared at him he would be quiet, or wake up, but the words came out growling and roaring and bubbling in a voice that was much too fierce to belong to the poor little man who lay wet across the table… The man didn’t sound at all as he had sounded when he asked for the boots. He was wearing the socks her mother had given him…

I’m not sure I can explain why I find the words “she thought that if she stared at him he would be quiet” so affecting. Some kind of mood I’m in, this rain, the empty alley. A little girl watches a strange man in her kitchen and thinks that her eyes alone might bring him some relief. It must have something to do with the way Brennan resists any direct verbal communication. The man doesn’t suddenly wake up and mutter a few coherent words that the kid will remember her whole life. No, Brennan lets a man who needs sleep, sleep. It is this refusal to create incident for incident’s sake that I’m getting at here. Brennan knew that an eight-year-old staring, hoping, praying, was enough. A rare thing to purposely avoid the sort of combustion that occurs when characters play off each other. It’s how things happen in fiction. Yet here, consider all that happens when Brennan allows her people to inhabit space in a story without having to do much at all, aside from sleep and stare. 

Malamud I

Bernard Malamud’s story about a father who only has a few hours to live. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it. The father’s name is Mendel; the thirty-nine-year-old son is named Isaac. Today we’d say Isaac was developmentally disabled. Back then they called him, in charitable moments, an idiot. 

I don’t read the Bible much and rarely go to temple, but if I had a holy text, this would be it. What draws us to certain stories has nothing to do with what happens. I know what happens. I returned again to “Idiots First” this morning. Outside, the silver March rain, the bare trees, a patch of old snow out in the wet grass like an island. 

Death, who in this story also has a name, Ginzburg, has visited Mendel in the night to let him know his time is just about up. The story opens with Mendel waking up in the cold, realizing he’s dozed off and wasted precious minutes. Isaac’s in the kitchen of the tiny apartment, playing with some peanuts. And the two of them begin their mad scramble across Manhattan to scrounge up the thirty-five dollars Mendel needs to send Isaac on the train to some uncle in California. 

First he hits the pawnbroker. The pawnbroker’s in no rush. 

The pawnbroker, a red-bearded man with black horn-rimmed glasses, was eating a whitefish at the rear of the store. He craned his head, saw them, and settled back to sip his tea. 

In five minutes he came forward, patting his shapeless lips with alarge white handkerchief. 

Those shapeless lips. I can see them droop. I don’t think I’ve ever paused to notice his lips before. And something else this morning. I think of my first job. I was fourteen and worked at the Highland Park Sports Shop. This must have been 1986 or ’87. Paul, the owner, had a little office at the back. He had a straight-shot view of the front door. When people came in, he’d keep eating, just like the pawnbroker. It was why I’d been hired. So Paul could eat while I waited on customers. Eventually he’d come out, wiping his mouth with a paper towel, and finish the sale I’d already greased. These peripheral ghosts that lurk in other people’s paragraphs. Paul? Paul what? I forget his last name, if I ever even knew it. When he spoke to me, which was rarely, his mouth was usually full of kielbasa. I didn’t mind much that he stole my sales. It wasn’t like I was getting paid on commission. Whatever I was paid, and I was paid a little something, it was thrilling, that much I remember. Plus, I got to fondle the new mitts for hours. 

In Malamud’s gloriously hammed-up Yiddish English, Mendel tells the pawnbroker: 

“Isaac must go to my uncle that he lives in California.” 

“It’s a free country,” said the pawnbroker.

No, it isn’t. This isn’t a free country. Why is it that whenever anybody makes this claim, they mean precisely the opposite? There are no free countries. The pawnbroker gives Mendel eight dollars for a sixty-dollar watch. What choice does Mendel have but to take it? He flees the shop, Isaac in tow, still playing with his peanuts. Ginzburg, who’s been following them—who’s trailing us all—skulks in the shadows.

Malamud II

Mendel and his son, Isaac, are still fleeing across Manhattan, trying against every odd to beat both the clock and Ginzburg—who is simultaneously death and a parody of death. But isn’t this accurate? Don’t we spend much our lives shrugging off the grim reaper as somebody else’s bad joke? 

Next stop: Fishbein’s mansion on the Upper West Side. Fishbein’s servant opens the door and tells Mendel that Fishbein is dining at present. Mendel refuses to be sent away. Fishbein appears, in a tuxedo, and tells Mendel he doesn’t give to unorganized charities. It’s not at all relevant here to mention that a certain Fishbein stole my girlfriend in high school. Sweet-talked Amanda Dowling right out of my skinny arms. Now he’s a real estate developer. Maybe I take this story too personally.

“All I ask is thirty-five dollars for the train ticket to my uncle in 

California. I have already the rest.”

“Who is your uncle? How old a man?”

“Eighty-one years, a long life to him.”

Fishbein burst into laughter. “Eighty-one years and you are 

sending him this halfwit.”

Mendel, flailing both arms, cried, “Please, without names.” 

Fishbein politely conceded. 

Still, he doesn’t give Mendel a dime, and the two are soon back on the street. The wind blows mournfully. Ginzburg continues to stalk his prey. Mendel digs a scrap of paper out of his pocket with another address, but it’s in Queens. Too far and there’s so little time left. Instead, he drags Isaac to a nearby synagogue. At the rabbi’s shabby house next to the temple, the rabbi’s wife answers the door. In stories like these, the rabbi’s wife always plays the heavy. She tries to send Mendel packing, but the rabbi himself peeps out from behind her, as gaunt as she is stout. “All I need is thirty-five dollars,” Mendel says. “Why not thirty-five thousand?” the rabbi’s wife says. Even so, the rabbi, from behind his wife, shoves a new fur-lined coat at Mendel. 

“I got my old one. Who needs two coats for one body?”

“Yascha, I am screaming—” 

Like a stomp on my foot is the rabbi’s wife’s dialogue here. Yes, it’s hammed-up Jewish vernacular, but I used to have relatives—every Jew in America used to have relatives—who talked this way, as if contractions weren’t invented. “Yascha, I am screaming—” But beyond this, isn’t this the way you, too, have shouted in an extreme moment? Times when you’ve spelled out exactly what you were doing as if the person you were shouting at couldn’t see you? Insert beloved so-and-so’s name here: ______, I am standing here and I am telling you that I love you. Can you not hear me? I am saying it over and over and you are not hearing. 

Mendel takes off with the coat, which somehow makes up the difference, and he’s able to buy a train ticket, though Malamud skips this part. He cuts right to the platform. Mendel and Isaac make it with a minute to spare. But the ticket collector refuses to let them pass. “‘But I see standing there still the train,’ Mendel said, hopping in his grief.” 

“Hopping in his grief”? Can you see it? The ticket collector, of course, turns out to be Ginzburg. I’m telling this as if you couldn’t read this story for yourself. But isn’t this the way certain stories are passed on, even now? Right now I’m nearly out of breath—it’s morning, early morning, and nobody in this house is awake—and I’ve got to tell this to somebody. 

Ginzburg and Mendel have, at this point, what I can describe only as conversation about the inexorable law of death. Ginzburg tells Mendel that the angel of death doesn’t have the power to contradict the precise time of a man’s demise. Deal with it, he basically says. It’s over. You are over. Mendel goes for his jugular, and you can call it nonsense, but it’s then (and I swear I buy it every time, and every time I’m surprised) that Ginzburg sees death itself reflected back at him in Mendel’s raging eyeballs, and it’s enough to freak even him out. “Who, me?” He backs off a moment and lets Mendel put Isaac on the train. 

And finally, there’s this, a sentence that rings with savage honesty: “Isaac sat at the edge of his seat, his face strained in the direction of his journey.”

Isn’t this what we do? Don’t we, always, leave our dead behind as we look toward Californias we can’t even see? 

Woolf/Lee I

One of the last pieces Virginia Woolf is known to have worked on was a four-page story she’d been rewriting for more than a decade. It’s called “The Searchlight.” There are multiple drafts; the earliest known is dated 1929, and the latest, 1941. The story is also known as “What the Telescope Discovered,” “A Scene from the Past,” “Inaccurate Memories,” “Incongruous Memories”… 

How I love to geek out on this sort of stuff. A four-page story with at least five different titles is my idea of a seriously good time. Clearly, whatever she called it, this was a story that meant something to Woolf, because she kept returning to it. In January 1939, two years before her death, she wrote in her diary, “I wrote the old Henry Taylor telescope story that’s been humming in my mind these ten years.” 

Note how she doesn’t use the word rewrote. She says, “I wrotethe old Henry Taylor telescope story.” Makes me wonder if the notion of rewriting is itself wrong-headed. In order to give them life, we’ve got to write the old stories, not rewrite them. 

From the first to the last, the core of the story—a boy and his telescope—remains constant. Only the frame changes. In each version, the boy sits at the top of a decrepit tower rising above an isolated and ruined farmstead and gazes up at the stars with his telescope. He’s a lonely boy. His mother died young. Nobody ever visits him and his father out on this derelict farm. At one point, the boy in the tower lowers the lens and sweeps his telescope across the moors. He sees trees, birds—and then a stem of smoke rising from a chimney. From this house, a girl emerges. The boy watches through his telescope as this girl feeds some pigeons. 

The published version of “The Searchlight,” set in wartime London, is narrated by a woman named Mrs. Ivimey, who tells this story to a group of her friends during the intermission of a play. Not only does she tell it; she acts it out: 

“Pigeons… they came fluttering around her… And then… look… A man… A man! He came round the corner. He seized her in his arms! They kissed… they kissed!”

Mrs. Ivimey opened her arms and closed them as if she were 

kissing someone.

“It was the first time he had seen a man kiss a woman—in his 

telescope—miles and miles away across the moors!” 

At this point, Mrs. Ivimey, rushing through her story because the play is about to start, mimes a remarkable gesture: “She thrust something from her—the telescope presumably.” Then, breathlessly, she tells of how the boy—her great-grandfather—ran down the steps of the old tower, sprinted across the moors for miles until, dusty and sweating, he reached the girl with the pigeons. The rest is history, the girl being her great-grandmother. 

But wait, someone in the party asks. What happened to the man who’d come around the corner? 

“‘That man? Oh, that man,’ Mrs. Ivimey murmured…,‘he I suppose, vanished.’” 

A simple story. Nothing much to it, really, and yet Woolf couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work. She struggled sometimes with her stories, like the rest of us mortals. I especially admire how she dispatches, without tricks or fanfare, the man who came around the corner to kiss the girl. 

That guy? He vanished from recorded history, like most people. 

I think of this boy with his telescope, up, up, up, and then—whoa—how about things down there? It reminds me of something Eudora Welty says of Woolf in her introduction to To the Lighthouse.I paraphrase—sometimes I get more joy out of trying to remember texts, even if I butcher them, than I do out of being accurate—but Welty says something along the lines of this: no matter how ethereal Woolf gets, her sentences are always, ultimately, connected to the earth with an iron clamp. 

Woolf/Lee II

That very day, Leonard found her walking stick by the side of the river. It wasn’t until three weeks later that her body surfaced. Some cyclists found a corpse washed up on the riverbank, not far from where Leonard had found the stick. That’s when they discovered what was in her pockets. I’ve always heard it was multiple stones. Hermione Lee, though, in her biography, says there was just one heavy stone. I know such details don’t matter. Ballast is ballast, and I’m doing only what countless others have done before me: picking over every last scrap of information regarding the how and why of her death. 

By March of 1941, she had stopped eating very much. At a certain point, collecting details becomes a cruelty. She left us so much. Multiple stones? One stone? 

Even so, I can’t stop myself from wondering about all this, and in particular a line that appears in the last chapter of Lee’s Virginia Woolf: “She could swim, but she allowed herself to be drowned.”

Hermione Lee didn’t write this lightly—a beautiful sentence, really, and eternally sad. I imagine it jolted her, the biographer, even after all the years she spent researching Woolf’s life, as it jolted me this morning. Still, there’s something about Lee’s use of the word allowed that suggests a kind of passivity that nags a little. Woolf’s bottomless and recurring depression wasn’t a secret to anyone close to her. There were the institutionalizations and the previous attempts. In light of this, allowed feels slightly limp. On the other hand, as I sit here staring at it, I start to see the first part of Lee’s sentence: “She could swim.” This gets right at it. Damn right, she could swim.

It’s occurred to me more than once, as it has occurred to many others, that Woolf’s death was some attempt to connect, one last time, to the physical, to earth, to water. But this is pretty romantic crap. The truth is that the river was near her house in Sussex; that’s all. To try and say more is to create fiction. 

Hermione Lee, God love her, refuses to indulge in metaphors of explanation. In “How to End It All,” an essay about how she approached Woolf’s suicide as a biographer, she writes: 

What I didn’t want to do, or didn’t feel I could do, was to write an account of her death which gave the impression that there was nothing mysterious or obscure about the act. I could describe, as far as I knew it, how she ended it all, but I couldn’t entirely—and nor can anyone—say why.

Wallant

When Murillo’s henchman sticks the gun in Sol Nazerman’s mouth, I want to scream, Enough already! After what Nazerman’s been through? The book’s relentless. I’m sitting in this park, talking to myself. It’s not a park. It’s a little garden, a peaceful garden next to Vermont Salvage in White River. There are three signs: private property, trespassers will be prosecuted, this area under video surveillance. But the place is so inviting. I come here a lot, risking the wrath of whoever. Now, having shoved the book away from myself across the picnic table, I’m staring at the back of the old bank building. There are places where you can see that the windows have been bricked in, where the brick is a newer, brighter red, like parodies of windows. What could make someone brick in a window? 

But at the same time, there’s something beautiful about the outline of where a window used to be. 

The guy who served me coffee, most mornings, for a couple of years. He killed himself last week. I’m not trying to make sense of it. I didn’t even know his name until after he was dead. During the pandemic (I write as if it were over), he refused my dollar tip because, he said, he was doing all right on unemployment. He came in only to serve coffee, he said, you know, as a volunteer. Also, he said, “I like having a place to come to.” 

He wore a red bandanna. Every day, a red bandanna. His obituary said his struggle with depression was over now. I think of the ones for whom the struggle is over and those for whom the struggle is never over. 

Sol Nazerman is a fictional character, a Holocaust survivor, though he would never refer to himself as such. Survived what? His son is murdered. His wife also. But not before Nazerman is forced to watch as his wife is raped by an SS officer. He often thinks about doing away with himself. In the scene with Murillo and his henchman, Nazerman wonders whether it might not be wiser, after all, “to suck death from the gun in his mouth, to have done with all of it.” But he doesn’t. Instead, he grovels. This forty-six-year-old ex-professor turned pawnbroker who works for Murillo, the shadow owner of the shop. Nazerman promises Murillo he’ll be a good boy, that he won’t ask any more questions. Trudges out of the apartment, takes the subway home, and goes to bed. It doesn’t do any good. In sleep, he’s besieged by visions. In the morning, he’s back behind the counter at the pawnshop, giving high-interest loans on people’s heirlooms, or things they wish were heirlooms: engagement rings, engraved chess sets, cameras, sewing machines, trophies, stuff people have borrowed, stuff people have walked off with.

The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant. Wallant died in 1962 of an aneurysm. He was thirty-six. Published two novels in his lifetime; another two came out posthumously. It’s said that, had he lived longer, Wallant would have been akin to a Roth, a Bellow, a Malamud. (Why always these three? Why not an Ozick? What about a Paley?) Sidney Lumet made a movie of the novel in 1964. Rod Steiger plays Nazerman. Still, the book’s in and out of print, mostly out. I’ve avoided it for years. Didn’t I know the story already? These people, we call them survivors. A kind of shorthand for not needing to think much more about them. As they die, one by one, the stories we think we know go with them. And maybe this is what Wallant was trying to prevent. Sol Nazerman. He’s not anonymous. He’s been drilled into my skull already and I’m only halfway through the book. I read a little at a time. It’s about all I can take. 

It’s July 2020. 

The guy who worked at the coffee shop was named Micah. There was a gentleness about him. He’d take time to look at you. He knew what you wanted. He didn’t need to give me or anybody else that kind of attention, is what I’m trying to say. We notice such things about the dead. For two years, I hardly gave him a thought. 

As I read The Pawnbroker in this little private garden, I wonder how much pain Nazerman can absorb. He’s a large, shapeless husk of a man. I almost wonder if his body mass is somehow related to the inarticulate sorrows he lugs around East Harlem. But it’s got nothing to do with his body. If only. It’s all in Nazerman’s eyes, everything he carries.

How much pain can a single person take? Useless to think that this book or any other will have an answer. Even so, Nazerman, the former professor from Krakow, reads. He reads Chekhov’s stories. He reads Anna Karenina. He reads not to take his mind off things. He reads, it seems to me, to make it across the next half hour.

Outside, there was the near-silence of the night, and only his own breathing made the slightest distraction. He read without stopping until morning. 

Hayden

Robert Hayden has a poem, “The Web,” about the speaker having, by chance, brushed and torn a spider’s web. Hayden describes how the spider dangled for a moment, “aerialist hanging / by a thread, // Then fled the ruin.” Think about it: Out of nowhere, without warning, everything you’ve worked so hard to build is annihilated. One moment you’re minding your own miraculous business, and the next thing you know, you’re in free fall. I pause here on this sudden suspension. I know someone who, while walking down a street in Chicago, stepped into an open manhole. He didn’t get out alive. Consider how it must have felt, that first moment, when his foot didn’t land on any pavement. Now, you could argue that spiders are more accustomed than most creatures are to this sort of disaster. How often must it occur to them? Ah, shit. Seriously, again? I spend all night spinning, and some cretin comes around—

For the last hour, I’ve been re-reading this brief, almost agonizingly elegant poem. I’ve started to feel it in my gut. How quickly something exquisite becomes wreckage:

fit snare for nothing

now but my 

Embittered thoughts

of a web

more intricate,

More fragile—and 

the stronger for 

its fragileness.

These embittered thoughts give rise to a comparison. The speaker thinks, after he’s destroyed one web, about a web more intricate and more fragile than the one he’s so casually torn apart. And this other web, the one created in the imagination, is, paradoxically, superior to the spider’s. 

Its iron gossamer 

withstands the blows

that would destroy. 

I wonder about this other web. I wonder if Hayden means this thing we walk around in and call our lives. We can’t spin anything. We plod forward. Some days are good; you hardly notice. Other days things are much tougher and you can almost see the bars of the cage. Of course, we can get out. There is always a way out. The fact remains that most of us don’t take it. Most of stick around, for better, for worse—for everything. Is this because, in spite of knowing the end of our story, we’re still curious about the particulars? Not to be one of those people who quote Camus, but it does call to mind that cool Frenchman’s thoughts on the grand absurdity of choosing to live. “Living is keeping the absurd alive. Keeping it alive is, above all, contemplating it.” 

Robert Hayden—who wrote such essential American poems as “Middle Passage,” “Those Winter Sundays,” “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” and “Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’”—once praised reticence as a literary value. It’s said he rarely wrote about himself. And this is, in large measure, true. There aren’t many directly personal details in Hayden’s poems. But I wonder if what a poet contemplates doesn’t tell us all we’ll ever need to know about them. 

A commonplace enough thing to do, to break apart a spider’s web. Maybe the speaker was in his basement, or outside among the trees in the early morning. Hayden doesn’t provide any of these details, and says nothing at all about whoever is speaking. Yet, as I say, the voice is so intimate I feel like I come to know the poet through what he chooses to consider. 

Hayden ends “The Web” this way: 

Caught in that filmy

trap, who shall

contrive escape? 

I make no claims to understand this poem, and each time I read it, it slips a little further out of my grasp. But maybe this is where I need to be, perched on the precipice between getting it and not getting it. Is this how certain poems seduce us to return to them? Re-reading “The Web” yet again, I don’t think “contrive escape” necessarily means suicide, or even death itself. Perhaps Hayden is suggesting that there’s no breaking free from the contours of our lives. That no matter what we do, the filmy but infinitely durable trap remains intact. 

It’s April 2020. I’m in White River Junction, Vermont. It’s early, not many people around, but today, aside from the railway workers, not many people will be around, anyway. We’re on lockdown. Don’t tell the governor. There’s never been anything essential about me. I come here, to this small room in the Hotel Coolidge, and read poems. Each time the freight cars are coupled, the whole building shakes. As I read, I wait for them, these great crashes.

Gerstler

Today a poem by Amy Gerstler lampooned one of my sacred cows. This being my faith that books—books! and writers! writers!—have the power to save me from myself. 

All these years I’ve been collecting and reading and rereading, kneeling and worshipping at the majestic altar of literature, and along saunters a single poem that says: Look, dumbass, you’re on your own, and guess what? You always have been. No book, no writer, no matter how glorious, brilliant, wise, is ever truly gonna—

And I also think: How long has it been since I laughed—I mean really laughed? 

The poem is called “A Fan Letter,” and it strikes at the heart of the myth of writer as savior:

Dear Literary Hero, 

Now that you’ve gently 

slit open my envelope,

you see naked before you

on this plain drugstore stationery

watermarked with my tears, 

the shaky handwriting of one

who has been given a second chance

The letter writer goes on to detail various misadventures—call them mayhem—that the speaker indulged in prior to being enlightened and reincarnated by the Literary Hero’s magic words. These misadventures include, among other bad choices, sleeping with the twin sons (both limp) of a grim local widower. “Then I digressed / to the widower. Still unsatisfied, / I found myself eyeing / his shaggy Scottish deerhounds.” Much to gape at in these three lines, but I’d like to pause for a moment on Gerstler’s inspired use of the word digressed. You sleep with the twin sons, you digress to the widower, you ponder the dogs… My own wrongheaded decisions have usually likewise gone from bad to worse, and yet it strikes me—via this poem—that all these choices have always been, in a way, necessary digressions. Without them, I wouldn’t be here, wherever the hell this is. 

The letter writer proceeds to flee from town, so as not to bring any more shame to the family. This is followed by a half-hearted suicide attempt in a cheap motel. The speaker ingests something called “fool’s parsley,” a fungus containing toxic compounds. “I didn’t even get high,” the letter writer writes. And so on. More regrettable things happen until that fated moment at the hospital when the letter writer pilfers a book from the nurse’s “huge, shabby purse,” and behold: the Literary Hero:

Your seething words

cured me—reading each was like swallowing

leaf after leaf of a blessed, healing salad

made from ambrosia and ragweed. 

I think we should meet. 

Gerstler’s deadpan crushes the fairy tale about how books are life preservers. “A blessed, healing salad”: that’s some powerful roughage. Yet, as I say, it’s a gospel I’ve lived by: that words, someone else’s words, are going to make all the difference. I’ve trafficked in this piff for years. I’ve trumpeted it on the page and off. To what end? No book has yet changed me for the better. For an hour, maybe a day. But fundamentally altered? If such a thing were possible, wouldn’t it have happened already? Where’s the compassion, wisdom, bravery that I am supposed to have gained? By rights of these bulging shelves, I should be Saint Francis, Einstein, and Mr. T all rolled into— 

“A Fan Letter” makes me wonder if what our mythological literary heroes do best is nudge us backward—not forward. Gerstler’s speaker is inspired by those seething words to return to some bad old days. Maybe it comes down to this: We may not be saved, but we can wallow happily. Certain books grant us occasion not only to enjoy someone else’s glorious failures but to roll around in our own. Like the time—choosing completely out of the hat here—I was waiting tables at a Pizzeria Uno in Chicago and was stiffed by a four-top of golfers. They’d come in for personal pan pizzas after eighteen grueling holes, riding around in a miniature electric car. These guys were still wearing those shoes with spikes that could kill frogs and other small amphibians. After shouting at me the entire meal—“Where in the fuck is the parmesan?”—they left exact change. I followed them out in the street and bawled, “Hey, how am I supposed to pay my rent at two eighty an hour? I work for tips, you country club suckholes.”And they turned around and beat the shit out of me with their chubby, uncalloused golfer fists. They pummeled me right there on North Avenue. Or maybe I just fell down at the sight of those pampered mitts raised against me without getting a single lick in for the little guy. 

I was splayed on the sidewalk when the assistant manager—his name was Danny; he was about my age, and I can still see his greasy, pimply face—fired my ass. Then he stooped down and pulled off my apron, which was still bulging with cash and credit card receipts. 

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