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Harvard Review #21, Fall 2001 -
Delbanco has a fine intellect and a sharp pen, and he wields both with precision.... The essays contain gems of wisdom and lovely turns of phrase.
We work, each one of us, in the deep dark with no notion of what lasts. With this phrase Nicholas Delbanco reveals one of his urgent concerns: Why does a writer write? How much of his work will seem meaningful to others?
In The Lost Suitcase Delbanco ruminates on the life of the writer and the significance of language as art. The title novella, a stunningly crafted story that is the book's centerpiece, takes as its central conceit a famous anecdote about Ernest Hemingway's early work: Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, going by train from their apartment in Paris to visit him in Switzerland, brought along, at his request, a suitcase full of his work-in-progress. The suitcase was stolen, and the loss was devastating for both of them as well as for their marriage. Did it also cause irreparable damage to Hemingway's career? Delbanco imagines this event and its main characters in numerous extremely inventive ways that make the narrative itself a comment on creativity, fiction, and a writer's self-awareness.
In the eight reflections that surround and frame the novella, Delbanco contemplates various aspects of his craft. From the pleasure of travel writing to the travails of historical fiction, from the question of artistic judgment to that question put to the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon ("Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?") -- Delbanco ranges far and wide through the literary landscape. By turns descriptive and prescriptive, he explores how literary virtuosity is achieved, how the writing of fiction can be taught, and the way literature functions for writer and reader equally. He reflects on his own history, his family, the standards of judgment and progress, and the ways we remember and revise what has happened to us. "Fiction is a web of lies that attempts to entangle the truth. And autobiography may well be the reverse: data tricked up and rearranged to invent a fictive self."
In both form and content, The Lost Suitcase is a tradition-steeped meditation on literary art and an original foray into the world of words.
Columbia University Press
Delbanco has a fine intellect and a sharp pen, and he wields both with precision.... The essays contain gems of wisdom and lovely turns of phrase.
Engaging... [ The Lost Suitcaseis] distinguished by its technical virtuosity, self-reflexive perspective and an improvisational modus operandi.
— Andy Brumer
Delbanco has a fine intellect and a sharp pen, and he wields both with precision.... The essays contain gems of wisdom and lovely turns of phrase.
Travel, Art, and Death
For the past several years I've kept a kind of notebook—what others might call a commonplace book, a compilation of jottings—in the drawer of my desk. These are the stories that never quite attain fictive fruition, the speeches that don't reach the podium or print, the by-blows and commentaries that keep writers working, when not at real work. They are what Virginia Woolf described as "little darlings," the fine phrases and false starts and tangents and scenes from the cutting-room floor.
A writer's finished product always resembles his or her own other productions more closely than those of anyone else; we leave our fingerprints on every page. By their commas ye shall know them, and by their usage of the semicolon and the subordinate clause. So these entries have clustered almost as if by molecular affinity into characteristic groupings. They address the three great topics: travel, art, and death. Of another three great topics, politics, food, and sex, I seem here to have little to say. Or—to take another triad—on the subjects of hunting, memory, and taxes, I remain more or less mum. These particular "commonplaces" or "night thoughts" (the French might more grandly call them pensées) have been shaped and rearranged only a little—not so much to render these informal entries coherent as to make them in some formal way cohere.
What follows is a set of notes on motion, immobility, and the articulate effort to mediate between them: travel, death, and art.
We have, I think, an increasingly complicated sense of what it takes to live the simple life. The famous meal in Omar Khayyám's poem consists of "a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou beside me in the wilderness." That original feast also entailed, it appears, a leg of lamb—but the translator of The Rubáiyát, Edward FitzGerald, thought mutton insufficiently romantic for a lovers' picnic and, as a good Victorian, simply omitted the meat. But what about olives, a hard-boiled egg or two, some vegetable munchies, cold fried chicken, and the Bloody Mary requisite for a tailgate collocation? It's hard to know, I mean, when enough's enough.
My wife and I, last autumn, took a trip to Greece. We spent a vivid week in that region of the Peloponnesus known as the Deep Mani, the southernmost tip of the land mass below the Bay of Corinth. It's not far from the high ring of stones in the ancient town of Mikinis that once sheltered the doomed House of Atreus. Nearby lies that splendid theater Epidaurus, where the tragedies of Agamemnon and Oedipus and their troubled progeny are still, every summer, performed. Yet the Mani has no cultural locus as such, no famous site to which tourists flock, no grand hotels facing the Acropolis; it's an empty and, to a degree, forbidding place. The olive and the orange tree look less firmly rooted than the prickly pear. There are Byzantine chapels and hillside shrines, but little to evoke "the glory that was Greece." The Museum of the Mani displays photographs, not statuary or pottery shards, and the statistics as to literacy, sobriety, life expectancy, and so forth are not good. The roads are steep and switchbacked; erosion and tree felling and centuries of goats have left the mountains barren, a mixture of red dirt and shale. The Maniots are famous for their quarrelsome independence; this region has never been conquered, and its characteristic structure—a stone tower, sometimes as high as five stories—appears to have been, for centuries, built for the sake of toppling. The local blood feuds are fierce. You knock down your neighbor's tower, and then he levels yours.
Elena and I stayed in the near-deserted village of Vathia, in one of those ruined towers. The site is breathtaking: high on a crag, with the Aegean in the middle distance and the kakavouna, or "evil mountains," behind. A high wind howled; at night it rained. This was late October, and the restaurant in Vathia had shut down for the season. In that settlement the one phone had failed to operate for weeks; electricity proved chancy and hot water rare. The young have fled to Athens, where there's nightlife and work. Those who stay behind are elderly, and the women all wear black. They keep some chickens and perhaps a goat for milk; the men drink coffee and ouzo and play cards and board games noisily in the café. They pass the time in a manner not wholly comprehensible to this hurried, harried Westerner; in turn, time has passed them by.
I don't mean to compose one of those platitudinous sermons on the virtues of the "simple life," because it's by no means clear to me that their life and lot are easy or—if given the option—that they would reject a trade. But what these folk expect seems far closer to what they get than is the case for most of us; the distance, as it were, between ambition and achievement looms less large. An old woman in the water, with her slippers on and skirt hiked up, was anchoring her evening meal—a fish in a string bag—with rocks. That way it would keep fresh, salt-laved till cooking time; she would have, no doubt, a jug of wine, and there would be bread.
The photographs of generations previous are almost always unsmiling; when you're asked to hold a pose it's hard to hold a grin. Daguerre and his disciples took some time to complete their images, but standard equipment nowadays offers split-second exposures and instantaneous results. We've all been told to "smile" or "say `cheese,' "to flash our white teeth at the camera's eye; it's only the professional beauty—the actor, say, or model—who's allowed to look earnest and tight-lipped on film. So a family album can tend to mislead, as though life has always been a perpetual vacation with everyone all the time happy and gathered—arms linked—in convivial groups. Our recent visual history establishes a record of posed protracted bliss.
This is of course not the case. Even the best-humored and most fortunate among us spend less time smiling than photos suggest, and the true family album should also record pain and loss. Divorce grows as common as marriage, but we fail to take pictures of that ceremony and its participants after a session in court. Death is the inevitable consequence of birth, but how many "final" photographs adorn the book that starts with a baby picture and announcement? In every child's box of mementoes there's likely to be a scrawled declaration of hatred for siblings or dinner or school, a farewell note announcing, "I've just run away!" But the photographs will be of birthday parties or Halloween costumes or the little darling gussied up for the first day of school or first dance....
A friend of mine collects paintings and engravings that feature, on a table or bookshelf, a skull; it seems a strange sort of hobby to have, but as he accurately says, the grinning skull, memento mori, has long been an emblem of life. When Hamlet says, "Alas, poor Yorick," and converses with that bit of unearthed bone, he's following hallowed tradition.
Walk through any portrait gallery that features folk from the unrecent past and you'll receive that same grave glare, that sense of transience stayed. And the lips of the cleric or lady or king are sealed not merely—though no doubt in part—because their teeth were bad. As a character in Troilus and Cressida reminds us, "Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, wherein he puts alms for oblivion." Smile.
Recently two of my "masters" have died. I use the word with some particularity; they were my much-respected teachers, though I took no formal class from either and did not know them well. Nor, to my knowledge, were they particularly close colleagues; Wallace Stegner lived in California and Vermont, John Hersey in Martha's Vineyard and Key West. But they are neighbors now in what James Baldwin—another late lamented master—called "the royal fellowship of death."
Among that fellowship these two new arrivals will surely be made welcome and acknowledged. They were prolific novelists who each produced consequential journalism, short fiction, and memoirs. They wrote about Hiroshima and blue-fishing and the vanishing Old West and principles of conservation and strategies of prose. They were "men of letters" in a fashion that seems these days more and more rare. The privacy-loving Hersey was reserved to the point of seeming-shyness; he had been born in China, and something of the Mandarin remained. Stegner too seemed ill at ease in coat and tie or at the podium, as if he'd rather be sitting a horse. Yet both commanded full attention when they spoke. They had long careers, both, and died in the fullness of time; Hersey was approaching eighty and Stegner was well past that age.
I don't propose to furnish here an obituary notice—this is not a day-after account of lives lost—nor will I list all their publications, much less describe what their legacy might mean. The Big Rock Candy Mountain, The Spectator Bird, Hiroshima, The Algiers Motel Incident, Crossing to Safety, A Single Pebble, All the Little Live Things, Fling, A Bell for Adano—how could one hope to compass the various achievements of these two so-various writers? There have been memorial services and articles sufficient in any case. But these authors seemed to me while living to have a kind of indestructibility, and I want to honor their passing by reminding myself once more of what endures.
These thoughts have been occasioned by a funeral I did recently attend. My dead mother's elder brother died at eighty-six. He had been in failing and then failed health for years; his own "crossing to safety" was nearly imperceptible, and the funeral service was private and brief. I flew to New York City in order to pay, as they say, "my respects," and at the service found out much about the man I had either forgotten or never quite known. He once sang Cherubino, for instance, as a dandy in Berlin; he played the violin but gave it up when Hitler came to power and never touched the instrument again. When young and robust in the Second World War, he escaped from prison, twice, and walked from Vichy, France across the Pyrenees. I knew my uncle well and was raised as his literal neighbor, yet these and other stories came as a surprise. And throughout the oral passing-on that constituted our remembrance I found myself wishing, time after time, that he—or I—had written it down. A family's history has much to do with just such stories, and I felt a kind of quasi-professional shame at not having told them yet.
So I remember Wallace Stegner the last time we met. He came to the University of Michigan to deliver a series of lectures (on water management, as it happens), and we spent time together. I was complaining in my midlife way about how getting and spending we lay waste our days, how hard it is to muster youth's ambition after a certain number of decades and books. I'd had a similar discussion with John Hersey a while earlier, and his answer was the same. They represented as much as said it: "Nonsense, boy, we're all beginners. It's what happens next that counts—and the work you leave behind." What they leave behind are volumes, and those volumes speak.
When I first became a teacher, well-meaning friends seemed worried. They warned me, in effect, that there were only a finite number of words, that I'd use up my available store of language, depleting the resources a writer must draw on in order to do his true work. It turned out that, for me at least, the occupational hazard of teaching is precisely the reverse—a kind of garrulity, a logorrheic flow. So I can now say in a paragraph what used to take a sentence, can speak at some length with a semblance of conviction on a topic of which I know nothing at all—just by turning on the syntax-tap and waiting to see what pours out.
Therefore silence seems the better part of valor, a way of revaluing language and letting the well fill. Some of the great modernists have embraced this proposition and explored that paradox: Samuel Beckett produced a million words about how hard it was to be accurately expressive. Nothing in the work of J. D. Salinger has been more closely considered than his refusal to publish it, and Marcel Duchamp's most sounding statement was his withdrawal from paint.
Fifteen years ago I wrote and published a novel called Possession. It was well enough received, was the first of a trilogy, came out in paperback, and then languished in that genteel obscurity to which most books are sooner or later consigned. I think there was a movie with that title—no relation, one of a series of ghost or succubus stories—and more recently there was a bestseller with the same title by the accomplished British author A. S. Byatt. So I wasn't overly surprised to receive a letter from a company in Hollywood asking about the status of the film rights to the book. These letters come from time to time, and I figured they'd gotten the wrong Possession; in any case, the letter, when forwarded by my publisher, was already several weeks old. Nonetheless I called.
The man who wrote the letter took the call and sounded pleased to hear from me. "Hey Nicky baby," he said, "we love this book, we love it." He hadn't read it yet, but others in the office had, and the reader's report said legs. They were talking Tom Hanks. Since the hero of Possession is a seventy-six-year-old Vermonter, a man called Judah Sherbrooke who barely leaves his chair, I suggested gently that he'd got the wrong book and author. Tom Hanks—splendid actor though he be—wasn't quite the age or type I had in mind. "No problem," he said; his company was the company that made Pretty Woman, and they were talking Julia too. Since Sherbrooke's older sister is pushing eighty and uses a walker and dips rather too often in the elderberry wine, I averred as how Julia Roberts—splendid actress though she be—was perhaps not quite right for the role.
He was persuasive, enthusiastic, insisting he had the right author and book. He talked on and on till finally I said, "Look, what are we talking about?" And he admitted, "Nicky baby, we ain't talking about squat." The previous week they'd had a change of management and he was out of there. He was history, but it had been terrific talking to me; there were cutbacks everywhere, and when he left he was taking the file. The rest is, or ought to be, silence.
Zeus Xenias is the Greek god of strangers, those wanderers who show up at your door and must be made welcome within. Often a deity comes in disguise—in order, as it were, to test the waters, to gauge the quality of generosity in a farm or town. Something of the same pertains to the god Wotan of Norse mythology, and in French the word hôte signifies, according to its context, either host or guest. These are but a few examples of the widely held belief that hospitality matters—that, in a world less domesticated than ours, the traveler requires roof and food.
In America, as I write this, countless doorbells are being rung. A thousand strangers present themselves at a thousand doors. It may be to make a delivery, to read a water meter, to present a petition for signing, or to sell magazines. It may be—as in the case, say, of a broken car or a request to use a telephone or bathroom—in real need. But how many house or apartment dwellers, standing at that door, will fling it wide? Imagine: you declare to this stranger, "Please don't tell me why you're here until you've had a chance to catch your breath. Come in, why don't you, and sit down. Here, this is my favorite chair. Is it sufficiently close to the fire? Take off your shoes, please—no, let me help you; my daughter will wash your feet. We were just about to have supper; won't you join us? Eat, drink your fill; take a shower. Then tell me, when you're ready, who your parents are and where you come from and the reason that you're here."
Needless to say, it's not likely. The only time a doorbell rings and the door can be flung instantly open is in situation comedies, where the TV circumstance requires that an entrance be announced. In real life, of course, we're far more likely to engage in xenophobia—the fear of strangers that edges up to hatred, the drawn bridge or locked gate. Yet the scenario of openhanded host and guest, of xenophilia, is played out time and time again in Homer's Odyssey. It mattered to those hill-bound and sea-scattered tribes that the wanderer be made welcome, and that no questions be asked.
Even now in Greece the ritual observance of hospitality continues; one conducts a transaction with coffee or candy; one concludes a transaction with ouzo or raki, and it's the seller who buys. I mean by this that when you rent a car or examine a sweater in Athens, it's part of the bargain that food be included, that you share at least this purchased remnant and traditional reminder of a feast. In the Plaka, a village on the slope of the Acropolis now largely consigned to restaurants, I met a shopkeeper called Stephanos sitting in a patch of sun and reading his newspaper. He sold leather goods—belts, briefcases, duffels, handbags, purses—and it was the end of the season and he was closing things down.
He had a cousin in Grand Rapids (every Greek has cousins in America or, increasingly, in Australia), and this seemed sufficient reason for a drink. We talked about the weather, politicians, the proto-fascist colonels once in power there, the quiddities of tourism, the fiscal-exchange rate, democracy, the football results, a border dispute. Only in conclusion—sitting back, smacking his lips—did he inquire courteously, "So, tell me; why are you here?"
A university town is, by definition, full of more-or-less- educated transients. And it's an educated guess that it will prove pleasant to visit and that some of the visitors stay. These last are called faculty members. My wife and I had dinner last month with dear friends in Ann Arbor, and at that point in the evening when wine lends its spurious clarity to what is befuddled perception, I recognized that she alone of all the people on the porch had been born in America—if, that is, the borough of Manhattan quite qualifies. Her mother's name is quintessentially American in its linked contrarieties: Aurora de la luz Fernandez y Menendez Greenhouse, and there's been the usual melting inside the family pot....
Our host was Polish and his academic subject is, as he calls it, "remedial Babylonian"; he reads tablets that make Gilgamesh seem clarity itself. The Palestinian author Anton Shammas and the Israeli Rachel Persico were of that party also—married to each other in this country, as they could not have been so easily in the shared land of their birth. I myself was born in England, of parents born in Germany, with an Italian name. This is the rule, not the exception, in our mobile time. To be an immigrant or refugee, or simply to have moved somewhere other than our parents' home, is the commonplace condition of the twentieth century. And there's a concomitant impulse to visit the place of one's birth—or that of one's parents' parents—to hunt the taproot in all this rootlessness. Witness those busy companies that promise you a family tree, those gatherings of clans that ratify what's often an illusion of a rooted past.
Some years ago I was in London, visiting relatives. At a certain point my uncle and I decided to visit the house where I was born, No. 3 Holne Chase. It was hard by Hampstead Heath, a brick structure with a circular driveway that I remember sifting through, pebble by pebble, hunting my mother's lost ring. There was a coal chute also, and a pile of coal I used to clamber to the top of, pelting my pal Robert Elkeles; I was the king of the castle, and he the dirty rascal. Then we'd change places and he'd throw the coal. My uncle and I wandered around the locked house, full of sentiment and what I can only call Proustian remembrance: this was the corner where that had happened, there was the window I rubbed at to peer through the chill wintry fog. When we told my aunt that evening that No. 3 Holne Chase was just as I remembered it, the perfect container of all such memory contained, she looked up, adjusting her glasses, and said, "What?" I repeated myself. My absent-minded uncle absently agreed. His wife was less vague, more precise: "But, silly, you were born at number 6!"
So all that Proustian recall was refracted, a misremembered past. And though it seems funny and just a touch sad that history should be so subject to revision, I've come to feel grateful for such inexactness: the gift, as it were, of invention. We invent ourselves daily, I think. And some nights on a neighbor's porch we can, if we be fortunate, engage in an act of collective imagination—this dear dream of possibility, strangers establishing home.
Heinrich Schliemann, however, located Troy by taking Homer literally; the German archaeologist read the epic poem not as a metaphor but as a fact-anchored accounting of a people, time, and place. He had the means and the tenacity to mount an expedition, uncovering those "topless towers of Ilium" where once they had been toppled to the sand. Most field research seems powered by some such belief; the digger has an approximate idea of what's there to be unearthed. So the act of discovery is a confirmation of what's been waiting all along to be revealed: Michelangelo described his sculpture as figures imprisoned in marble, and what he provided with his chisel was merely release.
In our imaginations we do something of the same. We hunt for Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, Hamlet in the Danish castle Helsingør, Leopold Bloom in Dublin, and his progenitor Odysseus all over the watery map. It's passing strange to see the way those fabled locations endure—to see the sand at Pilos, for instance, and to remember the blind bard's description of Nestor's "sandy Pilos," or to see boulders off the coast of Sicily reputed to be those an enraged Polyphemus flung. Once we know that what we visit is of consequence, we look with widened eyes—and it helps to be told in advance. But the reverse can also be the case; if you don't know what you're looking for, it's not always easy to see.
In the small Peloponnesian seaport of Gytheion, there's little to write home about—a dock for car ferries from Italy and the islands, a skein of second-rate hotels, a clutch of sidewalk restaurants and dispiriting cafés. In season it's a tourist town; off season it's part of the Mani region that battens down its hatches against the wind and rain. There's a high seawall to keep back spray, and—as with so many of the roads in Greece—garbage dumped beneath (and sometimes hanging from) each tree. It's as though a history of offering up entrails to the gods has ratified, somehow, the habit of disposal: toss out your household's leavings since the dogs and neighborhood cats will pick them clean. At a curve in the road there's an outcrop, an unprepossessing little island connected by a causeway to the town. Elena and I walked to its edge: listless surf, a lighthouse with graffiti, thorns and brambles underneath. From the discarded evidence, couples take their pleasure there at night. That afternoon there were luckless fishermen, a caique putt-putting loudly into port, and a few idlers out on motorbikes, spewing fumes.
It was called, in the old days, Kranae. Legend has it that when Paris abducted his beautiful Helen and fled from Sparta to the shore, they shared their first lovemaking in this place. They hid from Menelaos and disported themselves brilliantly, and in appreciation Paris built a temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. After the fall of Troy, however, Helen's aggrieved husband razed the temple and erected one to justice and to punishment instead. Now there's a lighthouse, its windows broken, slogans painted at arm's reach. But of a sudden, the moon rose; the caique cut its engine, drifting; a scent of fennel wafted to us; and Gytheion was magicked by the song great Homer sang.
I've reached one of those milestone birthdays when it's no longer possible to call or believe oneself young. The coy jokes about actuarial tables or life begun at forty, for example, fade. Those referents to Jack Benny at his perpetual thirty-nine are themselves an index of increasing age, since a diminishing proportion of the populace has even heard of that comedian. Aging is a common story, and I won't rehearse it here. But one of the things I find myself doing that I didn't dream of doing half my life ago is opening the newspaper to the obituary page.
You can tell a person's predilection by the section of the paper he or she reads first. There are, of course, those dutiful citizens who start on the front page and work their way through to the end. But a newspaper militates against such plodding progress; each article invites you to turn to a far-distant fold. More habitual, it seems, is a glance at the headlines, then a headlong rush to the sports or entertainment or business or automobile or employment section. A contemporary definition of "Renaissance man," I suppose, would describe a person who can study the entire Sunday paper with pleasure and profit—reading accounts of the convention or stock market or baseball or gardening, say, with the same knowledgeable enthusiasm accorded to the travel section and the book review. At any rate, I now routinely turn from the front to the obituary page. This is not, alas, a function of age only; the plague of AIDS has brought down a legion of our brilliant young. But I have reached that time of life when almost daily—and without exception weekly—the newspaper brings mortal news.
There are several versions of and degrees of distance from any such announcement. The deaths that matter to us most are not those we learn of via a newspaper; we don't need The New York Times to inform us that a loved one or family member has just passed away. And it's also the case, of course, that a certain degree of prominence seems prerequisite to a column inch and photograph; we may indeed be measured by the length of our obits. So celebrity in this case matters, and many mourn the anniversaries of, say, JFK or Elvis or Marilyn Monroe.
More common is the news of a glancing acquaintance's death, where it grows clear as newsprint that we will not meet again. The finality comes as a shock. Recently I read of an old neighbor's death, and a notice of the death of someone who once owned our present home. This morning I read of a financier I'd met once or twice long years ago; of a sudden the tilt of his head came clear, his high-pitched intonation, the way he smoked cigars while sitting on the beach. And yesterday a woman called Bubbles, the wife of a British media mogul, stared out at me wearing a wig. In the twenty years since last we'd met she'd acquired a title and four or five homes; "I married an empire," she's quoted as saying, but death has its dominion even there. The glittering eyes—the ancient, dated photographs—stare out at us unseeing. We never quite believe, when the photographer comes calling, that it's for this we pose.
The college I attended was status conscious, clearly, and the degrees of academic achievement were closely watched. Not only could you be graduated cum laude, but magna cum laude and then—holiest of holies—summa cum laude. To reach this last, you had to run the gauntlet of an oral exam—if you were on the cusp, that is, and your teachers grilled you in order to decide. I had a friend who was very very good at English and slated for an oral exam; he was much less good at acting but fancied himself an actor and therefore entered a competition called the Boylston Prize Speaking Contest. His chosen speech was the first three hundred lines of Milton's Paradise Lost. He strutted and ranted and declaimed the speech, hand on his heart, and was very very bad and didn't win the Boylston Prize or, for that matter, place, show, or even receive an honorable mention.
On the appointed day of his orals my friend came quaking to the room where his committee of three sat in judgment; he opened the door and froze. At the head of the table, as committee chair, sat the redoubtable Howard Mumford Jones—a teacher famed even at Harvard for his fierce authority, his wide-ranging erudition, and his intolerant exacting preciseness. He did not suffer fools gladly and thought everyone a fool. He asked the first question, not looking up. "Mr. X, can you provide the scansion, please, of the first three lines of Paradise Lost?"
Now that's a nasty first request—but most serious college students of English literature (particularly if they've spent the last two weeks in desperate preparation for an exam) can provide the answer. The poem begins, "Of man's first Disobedience, and the fruit / of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste / Brought death into the world, and all our woe," etc. So our friend breathed a sigh of relief and got through it without overmuch woe and was settling down to answer the tough ones when Howard Mumford Jones, not bothering to look up, said, "Correct. Can you provide the first ten lines, please?"
Well, as it happened, he could. But that's a seriously nasty question and most of us could not. I surely wouldn't be able—had I not looked it up just now—to report that the tenth line reads "Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion hill / Delight thee more...." But our friend, remember, had just delivered the speech and knew those ten lines and their scansion cold. At the end of them, Mumford Jones looked up for the first time, ceased to tap his pencil, and said, "Very good. Pray continue."
So there is a God who watches out for failed public speakers, or who enjoys a joke. Because our hero continued until, at line seventy-five or so, the professor interrupted him and said, "No further questions. That will be all." His junior colleagues broke out in applause; Mr. X received his summa, and all manner of thing was well.
I like this story of course, because it puts comic flesh on that skeletal assertion, "The last shall be first." Had X been marginally better at public speaking, the Harvard faculty would have known he knew Paradise Lost and would not have asked him to recite it again. Also, and importantly, this story suggests that the benefits of a ruling passion can prove unexpected. There are high and unanticipated rewards in store for those, say, who hone memory or tinker with radio sets or clay or endgame problems in chess. John Fowles in his "Notes on an Unfinished Novel" puts the case succinctly: Follow the accident, fear the fixed plan. That's the moral here. What we think we are winning we may not have won; where we construe ourselves a failure we may yet in fact succeed.
Certain Cycladic sculptures, certain very early Greek artifacts, evoke art made earlier still, and in the south of France. Elena and I returned once more to that region of the Dordogne made famous by cave paintings—that hilly and cavernous region where Ligurian man made his home. The most celebrated of these caves is, no doubt, Lascaux. Its accidental discovery on September 12, 1940 by four boys of Montignac has been thoroughly reported on and, of late, commercialized; there are the predictable T-shirts and postcards and statuettes of Cro-Magnon man wielding a paintbrush. Yet because the atmosphere of the cave was thoroughly disrupted by the hordes of tourists trekking through—all that pollen and carbon dioxide and bacteria from shoes and clothing accreting on the walk—the "real" Lascaux was sealed again in 1963. Some twenty years thereafter a version of the original was reproduced a few hundred meters down the hill, as a concrete cave entitled Lascaux II. Though the artists were scrupulous, using ancient techniques and replicating to the millimeter the great original, the place defines itself as secondhand. Tour buses huddle, like the deer and horses painted within, at its base.
This is one paradox of democracy: the more widely available a site, the less special it becomes. Real estate brokers, museum directors, and advertising copywriters all profit from the claim that a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity is yours and yours alone. What was authentic once—be it beach or wilderness, atelier or recipe—becomes its own derivative from the moment of discovery and praise. Call something inimitable, and it is mass-produced. Trumpet someone's love of privacy, and you increase his appeal. So Lascaux Deux feels like the television version of Lascaux, the postcard of a painting. And one of the unanswered riddles of the place is why the portraits of men and women there should be both so numerous and primitive, why those who drew the animals with such surpassing skill proved so thick-fingered and sketchy when drawing their own tribe. The modern child who represents a cow does so as clumsily or deftly as she draws herself. Yet the cave humans are stick figures, not high art. Was there some taboo on self-examination or simply an absence of mirrors? Did the painter take his band for granted or fear for some reason to be too precise? At what point, roughly speaking, did the sense of self—and most particularly the sense of self as artist—enter in?
The answers have eluded us thus far, and I won't try to propose one. These artisans remain nameless, long ago and in the dark; we can't possibly illuminate their motives or their moods. But Elena and I found another cave, the authentic Grotte de Rouffignac, to which the atmospheric damage was done so long ago that no one seems to mind exposing it to more. It's a place full of graffiti, centuries of names scrawled over centuries of mammoths—deep and cold and forbidding and off the beaten track. There were a handful of us at the mouth of the cave; a young man took us into it by rail. Several kilometers down, when he switched off his flashlight in absolute blackness, I felt once more that rush of wonder: How was this done?
They lay on their backs, the painters. They used stone lamps with animal fat. But the rocks are uneven and porous, not malleable wood or canvas, and the pigment would have been quickly applied and equally quickly absorbed. He who outlined the mammoth's tusks could not have seen the painted tail; it would not have been possible, while working, to view the creature steadily and whole. And whether the painter intended this or not—whether these were images of what his people hoped to kill or what they hoped to entice to the valley once more—the images endure. We work, each one of us, in the deep dark with no notion of what lasts.
Excerpted from THE LOST SUITCASE: REFLECTIONS ON THE LITERARY LIFE by Nicholas Delbanco [C] 2000, Nicholas Delbanco. Reprinted with permission from Columbia University Press. A variation of this essay first appeared in The Georgia Review.
1. Travel, Art, and Death2. Judgment3. Rumford: His Book4. Telephone5. The Lost Suitcase: A Novella6. Letter to a Young Fiction Writer7. A Prayer for the Daughters8. Less and More9. Scribble, Scribble, Scribble
Columbia University Press