Life with Swan: A Novel

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A loosely fictional account of author Paul West's early days in the 1970s with his wife, bestselling writer, poet, and naturalist Diane Ackerman.
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1999 Hardcover New jacket First Edition. New Hardcover with dust jacket, clean, tight, unmarked, (Fine with Fine Dust Jacket), First Edition. () In this remarkable roman ? ... clef, Paul West transcribes and transforms his own life and love with captivating eloquence. Recounting his now-quarter-century union with Swan (poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman) with wit and tenderness, the narrator re-creates their times together and their friendship with Raoul Bunsen--a Carl Sagan-like character. Meeting Bunsen turns out to be one of the most. Read more Show Less

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New York, NY c1999 Hard cover First edition. First Printing.. New in mylar cover 300 p.; 23 cm. ==132 ==

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New York, NY c1999 Hard cover first Edition, First printing New in mylar cover. Mylar cover may show some rub wear. 300 p.; 23 cm. == 130 ==

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Overview

A loosely fictional account of author Paul West's early days in the 1970s with his wife, bestselling writer, poet, and naturalist Diane Ackerman.
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Editorial Reviews

Howard Frank Mosher
West is a master.
Washington Post Book World
Vance Bourjaily
Possibly our finest living stylist in English. —Chicago Tribune
Library Journal
West, the author of 17 novels and winner of numerous prestigious awards, presents a fictionalized version of the early days with his wife, naturalist and poet Diane Ackerman. In dense, intense, beautiful prose, he describes their literary circle in the '70s, which included scientist Raoul Bunsen. Bunsen's connections enabled the couple to view several shuttle launches, which here provide literary inspiration, linking art and science. West provides the flavor of the decade and the excitement over scientific progress and other enthusiasms while gently satirizing some of the academic characters. The tenderness of the May/December love story is revealed without sentimentality, and the witty wordplay will appeal to literati. This is a slow read, full of ideas to be savored. -- Ann Irvine, Montgomery County Public Library, Maryland
Andria Spencer
A translucent jewel...a langorous, beautiful thing.
The Boston Globe
Donna Seaman
West floats from word to word like a bee in a garden...it meshes the great and the small, the cosmic and the intimate.
Booklist
Howard Frank Mosher
West is a master.
Washington Post Book World
Roger Kimball
...[A] book whose effect depends more on its atmosphere and language than its story. At bottom, it is an extended invitation to admire the narrator and his inamorata. And why not?
The New York Times Book Review
Vance Bourjaily
Possibly our finest living stylist in English.
Chicago Tribune
Kirkus Reviews
An engaging autobiographical novel, really as much memoir as fiction, from the mandarin stylist renowned for both personal history (A Stroke of Genius) and zestfully inventive fiction (Terrestrials). West's subject this time is his wife, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman (herself a noted nonfiction writer); specifically, their romantic friendship throughout the 1970s when both taught at fictional "Coriolus" (surely Cornell) University, and formed a bond uniting their separate, then increasingly common explorations of the worlds of art and science. He waxes rhapsodic when devising the affectionate names "Swan" (for both her physical grace and her love of flight) and "Ariada Mencken" (a clever anagram for "Diane Ackerman"); impishly comparing them both to Dante's Paolo and Francesca; and celebrating each's penchant for (wonderfully awful) word coinages and puns-to wit: "Our oral lives (in the verbal domain, that is) have always been two interacting Niagaras, opaque and weird to overhearers." Chronology is treated cavalierly, as West noodles agreeably on such topics as their fascination with astronomy ("Far from star-crossed, we were cosmic lovers"), his own admittedly eccentric writing habits and passion for foreign novels and Milton's poetry, hers for close observation of the physical world and sedulous "conveyance" of what she learns to others. A book within a book in effect develops from accounts of their travels to (then) Cape Canaveral to observe Viking and Voyager liftoffs, shepherded by their pseudonymous colleague Raoul Bunsen ("an astronomical combination of Andre Breton and Salvador Dali"), who, we're probably safe to guess, is a fictionalized Carl Sagan. Thebook tools along aimlessly, but never fails to entertain, while creating a rich illusion of intimacy with two gifted and fascinating people for whom curiosity is one of the highest human virtues. It's probably something less than an authoritative dual biography.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684848648
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 2/22/1999
  • Pages: 300
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.74 (h) x 1.06 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One


A puberty ago, I watched from my office window one afternoon as she descended into baking sunlight on the library steps in a Spanish-looking straw hat (Eton boating style), drape-swinging her legs in polychrome-striped bell-bottoms, behind her the terminal moraine of black hair that set her out from the crowd since she was ten. Lissom, bosomy, elegant, she marched down the Mall with an involuntary swagger, caressing a book, Heidegger no doubt or The Psychoanalysis of Fire; in those days, I recall, she was into books on silence and also well into her maturity as a poet: her last teens. It is hard to imagine how excellent her work was, her poetry at least. Without uttering a word, she had figured in some class I held on twentieth-century British fiction, but always looking volumes and, in winter this, sealed off from the world in black sou'wester and oilskins. A huge raven perched on the back of the class, she had a look of profound astuteness, coming to me to ask if I would read her poems only after a six-semester wait. But I had read them already in campus magazines and been astounded by the real thing. Finally, when I got to review her first book, I wrote that she was the best living lyric poet. There again, having noted her quality, I perfected her at once, I the fugitive from the courtly love of the Middle Ages, the johnnies or the johns who thought nothing sensual was good unless it contained a decisive mental component. Not a shuddering orgasm quite, but a shuddering one that incorporated also a perfected image of itself, hence a goad to even sharper shudders. In a way they were right, those old-style courtiers, knowing that, once the orgasm was over and the makings rendered back up to God, Nature, or biology, its perfected image hung on, a neuter rhapsody, a stained-glass window arranged on a dangling penis. The more you mentalized, the more you got to keep as part of authentic memory. She, of course, had an easier row to hoe with silence, one of the cult words in those years; with perfection I was out of my depths, but the craving never went away; with silence she could always practice it in the back row while the rest of the class chattered itself to death.

    When, some other day, she came sauntering past the liquor store, where I happened to be stocking up on Scotch (a bottle a day kept angina away), she looked even more sensual and not because the clerks in there, once having seen her, began as a team to stick out and withdraw at demented speed the tongues with which they yearned to taste her. Their mouths wobbled, their saliva ran, their chops lolled with fatigue before she heaved those flanks out of sight, still walking in the voluptuous amble she had learned from Spanish movies maybe, or Silvana Mangano, or even her chocolate-noshing mother. I, I kept my tongue to myself but imagined it becoming sarcastic once I had quelled the day's shakes, once I had decided she was imperfect enough to warrant my intervention. Would I read her poems? I did and sent them off to an editor in New York, informing her this was the best poetry I had seen since Dylan Thomas and what were they going to do about it?

    So the girl turns up with her degree, all that hair screwed into a huge thick chewable bell-rope, truly a hirsute weapon, a containment of fluid substance, ideal (almost perfect) for grabbing her by, to swing her around or to hold her back when she tried in a panic to leave, screaming Ah, the Sixties. She was twenty-two, mentally a good thirty-five, with an odd habit of breaking into German (she could quote Rilke by the yard). She stayed for over a month, one day offering to wear a blond wig just for variety's sake, but I was too besotted with the avalanche of black curls she claimed she inherited from her Mongolian ancestors, though I, ecumenical to the last, said she looked Greek, Italian, Persian, your sultry enchantress fresh from one of those dashed-off Byron poems about Albanian women. Her mother, she said, when we were well into our talk, was always saying how drab she was when just born, not only jaundiced but with a wicklike protuberance vertically bisecting her forehead. This was the kind of propaganda you expect of a doting mama who all the time means the opposite of what she says. With a daughter that gorgeous you can say anything which deprecates; but such was not this mom's way with a girl who turned out to be a whizz at languages and writing, inscribing poems on her hands and wrists.

    I could see now why she had been silent in class, convinced that all the other students were brighter than she, why she responded to praise with diffident incredulity even though she knew her competence. Her identity was a myth she needed to believe in, but she backed down from it, which made her easy meat for almost anyone who wanted to shove her into a role. She had even, I gathered from a series of swift pawnbroking allusions, been married, to no purpose, and had been made responsible for the couple's debts on the marriage's dissolution. She had played another desperate hand in a psychic gambling game of her own and had lost. She might just as well have joined a zoo, become a sky diver, borrowed five million dollars to found a restaurant that poisoned. She was unaccustomed to affection, had come up with the term affectopath for herself and was willing to live by it, saddled by a label rather than fondled by a man. She held her liquor well (gin, I think) and showed remarkable capacity for intellectual talk at a level far above the rumination in her poems, which tended to be vignettes or cameos. She felt most at home with anthropologists, she said, because they were willing to take people as they found them.

    I had been up in the attic at the rickety manure-tainted table I worked on. Imagine. I had resolved to drink myself to death on schedule, yet not before I had written and arranged for the publication of all that remained for me to say, though doubtless (as I feared) continuous drinking might commit me to topics unanticipated, creeping up on me during delirium and demanding their day on the page. The means of ending things prolonged them. Then came Ariada, whom I soon began to call other names such as Pi and Honey; I felt that calling her by her given names was like sending out Christmas cards emblazoned with the push-out adhesive gold angels that came in the box. Refusing to affix them gave me some freedom of action in the world of heraldry, and so with her names. For a long time she was mainly Pi, but once she had become Swan she was always that, beautifully dubbed, I thought, for her gracious golondrina walk. Even to call her Ariada while looking back feels awry; who was that early she?

    I had acquired a sensitive, though I did not know it, and of all men I was the least qualified to deal with her problems, with her various modes: overwilling, mortally wounded, catatonic, exuberant rodomontade. It took me a good twenty years to get the hang of what was going on inside her, though she showed a consistently sweet nature, a silken gratitude for trifles, an ebullient charm, that told me she was the winsomest girl in the world, B.A. The big thing was to deal with her gently, never to shout or grumble, and I was hardly the man for that, with a so-called Irish temper simmering ever beneath the façade of delicate reserve.


Chapter Two


    Clouds of glory tear themselves to pieces from the outside in. I have never been able to love someone or something without making the object of my affections perfect, as if, I suppose, nothing was ever good enough for me, as if I had within me, also rending itself, some capacity to perfect denied the creator of all things. In fact, the attempt to perfect was a tribute; the loved person would always be a paragon, the loved object would always be flawless. It was as if even my infatuations rotted within from ego, but not really. I needed to worship whom and what I loved.

    That was how great religions began, with a simple act of homage converted into obsequious addiction. I hoped, as the years went by, to rid myself of so slavish a habit, learning at last to settle for human values; but the yearning has never gone away, not yet anyway, and I perfect Ariada Mencken, whom I dub Swan, as I did my mother, coming up with two goddesses instead of a mama and a spouse. Perhaps the hurly-burly of everyday affection is not for me, but instead the absolute of idolatry, a heavy burden because the worry of it allows me no tolerance: if I don't get perfection I don't want anything, anyone. This means I am a manqué of some kind, a monk who missed his vocation, a mystic who mislaid his universe. I must be the last of those who practice courtly love, honoring not the person or the thing but the grail.

    Harsher commentators on me than I would say I tend to sentimentalize even the universe, which is bad enough, especially if you are at all informed; but to deal with a grown woman, into whose affections you have insinuated yourself for years, as if you had played together as children, is worse. "Crush" comes again to hand, hand to mouth: he who has a crush is helpless, sweeping his victuals into his mouth with a flat hand wiped across the plate he holds between his lips. Gorging out. As Adolf Hitler did. Or I am like a spy who, broken and wretched, wanders into a village grocery and tries to obtain marmalade and corned beef on credit, hinting perhaps that he would trough on the latter all week and save the marmalade for a weekend blowout, all the time knowing that once paid in a few days' time after doing a few days' stint in the bookstore he will reenter the little shop whose bell goes ping-clang and ask for peaches and caviar. He is a cur who has read Proust. He too has this rotten vision of the perfectible, an ideal that, at times, must rack the Creator who has given the leopard too small a heart or the human a swallowing mechanism too close to that for breathing. Inured to praise, from me at least, my Swan gets on with life, lauded to death by her swain, but hardly put out if I forget to extoll her; she has acquired such impetus she needs no extra shove. I realize of course that all my verbal maneuvers add up to self-praise for having found her; but self-praise, they say, is no recommendation.

    I idolize memory because it never quite obliges us, always remains, even if only half a percent, its own thing, which makes a perfectly imperfect emblem of it, from our own point of view at least. I have made up songs about my Swan, which I sing to her in passable baritone, and she endures them, yielding a half-smile anyway as I intone:


Where is that Swan?
Where can she be?
Where can that Swan have gone?


When I cannot find her, that is. She never sings back, though she has an exquisite soprano (touch of Rosa Ponselle); she knows my elvish ways and does not fight them, resigned to the fact that I am an expressive, outmouthing person, prone to tunes.

    It should surprise no one that my fetishes matched her obsessions. I, the man who flew to Miami with a ream of best bond typing paper in order to soften it up for the assault (so it wouldn't fight back), the one who felt his life worthwhile so long as he was writing good fiction, dovetailed with her, whose vice was taking advice, whose main yearning was not to be yammered at, dragooned, manhandled, jeered at, abused for being born. Quel mess it promised to be; she tossed a homemade life belt to a drowning man and, with maximum tact, suggested he use it. If I wanted to stay up until dawn drinking, shouting at the TV set, or rambling, she stayed with me, Lady Philosophy come to roost, and if I wanted to go to Jamaica to bake the ethyl out of my skin she went with me, no complaints, although on the eve of one such trip waking me at 3 A.M. to ask the time. She didn't want us to miss our plane. Something so tender from those years makes me heave; in spite of everything, she was heaven's gift to an ailing man. She regarded her function as catalytic, always the discreet helper, even while writing poems that made custard dolts of all other poets writing. She was perched on some visionary edge, wobbling maybe, but unable to fall off. She even agreed to pick up my Scotch for me from the liquor store, seeing that I was too ashamed, and this held true even when I switched to cognac because, as I claimed, Scotch no longer had any effect. I should have been her muse, but she was mine instead.

    Astonishing to me, but commonplace to her, she played violin and guitar, taking her proficiency at both as something easy and natural as breathing. Perhaps she played so well, with educated brio, because music dangled and was dandled on the fringe of poetry. As a child she had swung on the doorknobs of rooms, improvising poems above what she regarded as appalling depths. Asking her to demonstrate this on the doors of the not very sturdy house I rented was asking for trouble, but I did so, and she mimicked it, clasping the knobs hard but without abandoning her body to its weight. She heaved to and fro, smiling as I envied her agility. In her time she had played squash and cricket, daughter of a gifted baseballer. She belonged on the prow of a ship. When I attempted the same feat, the knob tore out of the panel with a grating crunch and fell to the floor. End of games. For once I had amused her, I who usually made her wince or look away, what with my Celtic temper and so on. The music that really bonded us together, though, was not that which she played, even if it induced in me an ecstasy of direct address, like a poem dedicated to me or a prolonged, unpercussive kiss. During those long boozy nights we listened to, mainly, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams, some Hindemith and Brahms: not what you might call daring fodder. I was advancing, however, and she got me into Scriabin and some other composers right for my outlandish tastes. Set for incessant repeat, the record player ground on through the night and she lay there on the rug like a small factory in my arms, nodding and rocking, sometimes dozing, but ever-present in the meniscus of sleep or the pericardium of delight; I had only to stir my incompetent bulk (once that of a professional jock), twice her weight and twice her age, and she would stir, peer at weakening night or triumphant dawn and ask if we needed breakfast. I had learned by then never to try to live without music; the instant I did, my life went awry. I had grown up in the house of a music teacher and concert pianist, so a house without music seemed barren. I had even, to her dismay, arrived at the point of being unable to watch Combat or Route 66 without having music playing at the same time, as if to mute the crassness or to flavor the banality. Worse, with both music playing and TV blaring, I read the books I received monthly for review from The Washington Argo, income from which improved the pittance I got for teaching. Each Saturday, to her amazed horror, I "read" five novels in three hours, having chosen them from a parcel of twenty or so, and then wrote the review in another hour. Ever since then (and my time for reviewing has become severely limited), I regarded Saturday as an almost religious tantrum, whose echoes and latterday vibrations I can quell only by listening to the afternoon opera on the radio. I hate most opera, but I find it a useful antidote, countering one abuse of language with another.

    "Why bother?" she asked with tender pedantry. "What's it worth?"

    I told her it brought a couple of hundred extra dollars a month and, the real benefit, infuriated my colleagues as well as the authors of the novels I reviewed. "But the real boon," I explained, "is the education I get. I was in their offices one day and somebody held up a translation and asked if I might be interested in reviewing it. Indeed, in such translated novels in general." I said yes, and from then on I taught myself comparative literature in translation for some twenty years, at the same time amassing a fair library of contemporary European or Latin American fiction in translation. "Nobody else wanted to do it; they thought it was a bore and a waste of time, as if French or Spanish novels had anything to do with anything." There I was, as they no doubt thought, like the condemned man licking his lips at the sight of the gallows, giving a sheepish grin at the hangman. That awkward problem had gone by the board because a sucker had shown up. Amazing. What they didn't know was that writing those little essays was an artistic discipline I had learned as an undergraduate.

    About the same time as we sprawled on the rug, listening to scratchy 78s I had brought from Canada, we evolved special ways of talking to each other. Each was the other's child: she had had no nurturing to speak of, I had had almost no adult manhood. When we lay on the floor in the direct sun intensified by glass, we called it spanieling. I was in the presence of that ineffable miracle, a young woman in full flower, delighted to be where she was, and in fact belated in this state, coming into it from the last stages of puberty. That distant and obscure marriage of hers had been a mere kindergarten bauble, erased by one sunset or a good bubble bath, and she had reverted to who she had been before it, before before. It was all new, like one of those books of blank pages the beauty of whose binding readies you for something more velvet than a vacancy. She was growing up with appetitive innocence before my eyes, almost as if she had been entrusted to me by some force wafting at random through the universe, at last able to bring her justice and love. Or so I thought. But no one applauds the tenor for clearing his throat, or the soprano for gargling. We blundered about in joyful unanimity, she making many more concessions than I. Victim of the Molecule she called her first book, unpublished, alas, but now she had moved along and the molecule was her patron saint. She thought about the planets all day and wrote copious odes to them, deleting as many lines as not. She was inspired.

    In these first months I, rather than she (I told her little about it and rarely played the music pertaining to it), fixed on the music of paradisal occasions, drifting from Delius's The Walk to the Paradise Garden to any one of four versions of Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy, Fauré, Schoenberg, and Sibelius). I was into finical impressionism and she into sweaty Romantics. We overlapped, but not entirely; I cared more for French flutes than she did, and she for certain timbres of the male voice. Later we found VillaLobos and adopted him as the perfect composer, easing Richard Strauss into second place--Metamorphosen, his seamless dirge, had taken us over. What a musical couple we were, rather than a literary one; writing was work, and hard, whereas music had to it something of the flying carpet and the magic cave of Ali Baba. There in a decrepit house on a noisy street we trysted and dreamed.

    Not long before, the borough had moved in and cut down all the trees on that street, even though students had roosted in them to save them, in vain. Students occupied an annex behind us, forever revving the engines of secondhand cars, but we endured them, even when they blocked in her little Volkswagen. Off she buzzed to class while I incompetently tried to clean the three stories of the house in her honor.

    One day around Christmas, we were absentmindedly helping ourselves to a box of candy canes, red and white sugar sticks supposedly evocative of Christmas shepherds' crooks. These were wrapped in the softest, most clinging form of cellophane that clung to your fingers long after you had finished sucking and licking. Was it surface tension or some weak electrical force that made the pieces of cellophane cling thus? As you seized hold, it bonded to the seizing hand, and on and on, which meant that, so long as you tried to free your hand of it, it clung. It sounded almost like an account of love that, where you least expected it, held fast, reminding you with a faint stroke that it was there, attached in the least demanding way. Wherever I thought my Swan was not, she was, and I found my merest yearnings being intercepted by a mood of genial anticipation. I was swathed in the tenderest of linings, invisibly wrapped up, as never in many years. Our love was working well, keeping us warm and calm, yet without, I thought, any assist from shepherds tending sheep, unless we were sheep ourselves. A timely image, to be sure, it told us we had reached a plateau of sorts on which to repine and spaniel: one we had no doubt earned, sealed up in a coiled transparency of our own devising. We had been reborn and like dumb, dazzled animals were licking away the fragments of birthsac, maybe even eating them.

    Such were the images of delicious peace that came without our having tried that hard to bring them into being. We bred them, exhaled them, flicked them off our shoulders like so much angelic excelsior. Someone, now jubilantly forgotten, had spoken of obnoxious things, imaging them as a vampire bat on a string under your Christmas tree, but we failed to "twig" it, both of the opinion that the bat has a tender, neurotic face, is a nuzzler rather than a slasher, and could take a dose of gentle care. It all depended on how much you knew of bats, who to me had always looked raw and unhouseled, rubbed raw by prejudice, hypersensitive to the merest contact. In after years, Swan would write a long piece rehabilitating bats, and she received many letters from people newly converted who were going to build bathouses to invite them in. It was only a matter, I thought back then (swamped by images of angels and cherubs), of installing the bat as yet another desirable Christmas face, to be affixed to letters and parcels in a mood of lenient euphoria, knowing the recipient would respond to the contents in the noblest manner possible, as if the parcel said What possible dislike could you form for anything postal emblazoned with a bat? It is nonetheless a quest worth pursuing hard; prejudice rarely dies, and the bat's reputation as a bloodsucker et cetera does not yield easily to kinder views. To us, all creatures great and small were bright and beautiful. Such were the rosy spectacles of romance.

    One should always make the most of greenhorn ecstasy; it never lasts, and, although one can never predict the day when the rot sets in, come it will, disguised as a difference in taste, a fit of indigestion, a side effect of high humidity. There are cynical experts on romanticism who counsel one to switch from one young inamorata to another in the nick of time. To be sure, the candid, ingratiating ways of the nubile girl hardly ever show up in the performance of the incipient matron, who always knows what she wants you to be, even if it kills you. Universities ought to teach courses in this: the phases of love or something such, especially warning women that their tenure of bliss is short, especially since nothing is odder than juvenile mannerisms crossing the face of a woman over forty, her career draped over her shoulder like a fresh lion skin. If it is true that, for the university teacher, he or she gets older while the students remain the same age, it is also true that men remain the same age while women merely get older. Men's habits and mannerisms remain those of a twenty-year-old, which is no doubt reprehensible; but young women are pleasing because nature wants them impregnated right off, whereas nature, at least as I understand it, cares not a tittle whether the sperm comes from a youth or an ancient drone. Man bears nothing but the planned obsolescence of the female. To hell with all cynics; one should blunder ahead without counting the cost.

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