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Paul Ballard and Elizabeth Sieverdsen first meet at Catamount College, in Vermont, in the halcyon 1960s. He's an appealing young philosophy professor, modest, incisive, somewhat otherworldly, rumored to be bound for great things. She's a bright, frank, determined student who finds herself increasingly drawn to the kindly if distant Paul, and she wears down his wary reserve. Their fevered affair comes to an abrupt end when Paul is struck by a hit- and-run driver. His body shattered, despairing about his future, and guilty about his affair with Elizabeth, he sends her away. Angry and hurt, she goes. Paul's body heals, but he remains a recluse, publishing some acclaimed books but pursuing a solitary existence in rural Vermont. Elizabeth, meanwhile, marries a charming if somewhat passive Italian adman and settles down in his native village, where she raises two bright, demanding children. The marriage ends after they go off to college, and Elizabeth, at loose ends, troubled by her past, goes in search of Paul. Their reunion, filled with hesitancies, anger, and a growing awareness of their undimmed yearning for each other, is deftly handled. It seems, briefly, as if Elizabeth, now 48, has finally rediscovered the life she had once believed would be hers. Then sudden illness once more breaks the lovers apart. This is melodramatic stuff, and in less assured hands it would seem flat and unremarkable. Delbanco, though, narrates his lovers' plight in a spare, emotionally exact tone, and his characters have the complexity and fragility of real life.
A moving exploration of a believably passionate love, and of its subtle, powerful, persistent impact on the lives of two stubborn romantics.
Those who watched him in his infancy would claim it had been obvious to anyone who knew Paul Ballard from the start. Twelve months old, he learned the alphabet and enjoyed conducting while the radio played Bach. Bach was his father's favorite, but his mother's tastes were catholic, and she liked everything, she liked to say, from Frank Sinatra to Billie Holiday to Gabriel Fauré. It didn't matter, really, what music they were playing as long as music played.
Little Paul seemed to agree. He would raise his arms up from the carriage or high-chair and wave his hands delightedly when he heard Mozart or Bloch. He imitated the difference between adagio and vivace and also soft and loud. Paul did so in the fashion of an orchestra conductor, expansive and imperious, and often on the beat. He hummed while eating oatmeal or sucking on anything sweet, and when he sang Happy Birthday he did so, always, in tune. He'll be a musician, his grandmother said, and his mother said, Oh I don't know, maybe what he wants to be is a policeman. Maybe he's directing traffic, not an orchestra. You mark my words, his grandmother repeated, there's harmony in the child's soul ...
He liked to play checkers, then chess. He taught himself arithmetic at three. He enjoyed the back-and-forth of This little piggy or Old MacDonald, and he knew every single answer to the question of what noises were produced by horse or dog or lamb or owl or cow. Oink-oink he answered when asked about pigs, and meeow meeow about cats. He memorized his multiplication tables, seven times seven and nine times twelve and, later, he could manage complicated fractions and do long division in his head. He was an intelligent boy. Everybody said so, and some of them were envious, and when he won the spelling bee there were many who called him too big for his britches, too stuck-up for his own good.
"Metempsychosis" was the word; he knew it in fourth grade. The class divided into half, not by size places but the alphabet, and his team routinely won. They lined up along the blackboard, and the teacher would read out a word on a card-"euchre," say, or "palimpsest" or perhaps "vastation." If you spelled it right the other team would get a new word for their turn, but if you spelled it wrong the other team would have a chance to get it right. Paul knew this was unfair.
(Later, he explained it all to Robert Askeles. If you spelled "euchre" with a terminal "er," or thought it meant the eucharist and were disqualified, then your opponent could avoid at least one way to lose and therefore had a better chance to win.
"That's life," said Robert Askeles. "That's how it works in the world." "What world? The world of spelling bees?"
"Why do we call them 'bees,' I wonder. Because we buzz and hum?"
"Correct. We drone."
"Abecedarian," said Paul. "That's the word for a person who barely can read. First 'a,' then 'b,' then 'c.'"
"I thought it was 'analphabetic.'"
Language was his strong suit, and had been all along. In fourth grade, when he was ten years old, a perfect consonance obtained between what he heard, saw, and wrote. The word "consonance," for instance, might end with a final "ts" and mean something altogether different; so might the word "instance" itself. But never for an instant did young Ballard get it wrong, and he failed to understand how other boys or even Robert Askeles could not see language spoken, as though the letters and the syllables inscribed upon the teacher's prompt cards were etched upon the luminous and circumambient air.
When the atmosphere was sufficiently cold and he could watch his own breath steam, it was as though the alphabet became corporeal if evanescent, and all these words were words he knew by seventh grade.
Then he learned languages. When they started him on Latin it was as though, from some previous existence, he already comprehended it; so too with French and Spanish, those exfoliating leaves upon the twig of the one branch, those roots of a multiform tree. Comprende? Tu comprends? He did not need to study them or scrutinize their grammars; they made musical arrangements like the ones he could hear in his head. Or, to change the figure, it was as though a line might complete and thereafter compound itself into echo and silence: half-remembered, foreordained.
"Clever, clever," said his teachers. "Ja, ja, precisely, gewiss."
Nor did German prove intractable, though he took small pleasure in its utterance and preferred the elisions of Danish and Dutch. Through grade school and high school and college and graduate school Ballard stood at the head of his class. Yet those who watched him whispered, and some were dismissive or scornful: if he's so smart, they asked, how come he isn't rich? Smarty-pants, they called him, smart-aleck and smart-ass.
There came a time when language ceased to interest him, when the articulation of sweet sounds together no longer seemed the point. It was as though the mind's refrain (a snatch of song, a whistled chorus or repeated modulation) were code he might learn how to crack. Now what he chose to study stretched beyond the reach of syntax-that field where music, common parlance, and notation intersect. With no conscious application Ballard scanned it while he tried to sleep, or heard it in the shower: tonic and dominant, octave and chord ...
(Later he discussed it all with Robert Askeles. If we postulate, for example, the answer that is "God," then what might be the question?
"Who said that? Gertrude Stein?"
"A variation on her theme. It's not, perhaps, original."
"The nameless name. The dialectic." Robert made a movement of impatience. "You're talking in riddles again."
"The question suggests less the answer than asker.
Let's call it, for the sake of argument, our epistemological uncertainty ..."
"God, Mr. Philosopher ..."
Here rhetoric applied. The tactics of debate club and the strategies of cross-examination were skills that served him well. Those teachers who took pleasure in having such a student helped secure for him an NEH Fellowship and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and two separate stipends for research from the ACLS. He moved from job to job, from city to countryside searching for knowledge or what they called then-in the fashion of the period-enlightenment.
"We are professionals," he liked to say, "professors, if you will, but what do we profess?"
He worked at City College, then Cornell, where he established the beginnings of a widespread reputation. He married and divorced. His wife needed to be with a person, she said, who believed she was special and didn't make her feel like a fool simply for wanting to maximize her personality potential and for deciding to actualize herself and be self-actualized. Their marriage had been a mistake. They could correct it, she said. Her new lover was in politics; he owned a real-estate company and would be a state senator soon, and he makes me happy, Paul, he doesn't think I'm stupid or worthless and I want to have his child ...
In 1966, on his thirty-second birthday, Ballard moved to the small college town of Catamount, Vermont. At Catamount College he prospered, writing articles and books. There were those who flocked to study what he taught.
What she knew of him was just the usual sort of shit, an old man making eyes at her across a crowded room. Except it wasn't crowded: twelve disciples on the floor and chairs and couches, doing Kant. Charette had made a bet with her: if you wear your leather miniskirt and nothing underneath at all he'll lose his famous cool. Dawn tried it too; they had a bet, the three of them, to see which one-sitting in Ballard's logic class, sharing a couch-could get him to forget what he'd been saying, or cough, or maybe light his pipe. It was "The Categorical Imperative," that much she could remember, and he had been critiquing by way of introduction the Kantean assertion that pure reason could prevail. The dormitory living room he taught them in still smelled of last night's weed, and beer, and Monday morning was a bitch, and when she spread her legs he lit his pipe.
It was 1969. It was April 21, Elizabeth remembered, the snow on the crest of the mountains, melting, and that yellow haze around the willow trees that meant there would be spring. She never believed it, not really, but then the ice cracked up along the river and birds began to sing again and you could feel things thaw. She was a junior at Catamount College, and Locke and Wittgenstein and Kant were not exactly the hottest of topics and she had a sinus headache and a paper due that afternoon for "Mythopoesis and Literature" she'd not even started to write. So Professor blue-eyes Ballard could discuss his categorical imperative till everything got old, and cold, because the beauty and rigor of logic was escaping her this morning, because the milk in her coffee cup curdled, and if it wasn't for her friends on either side scratching away in their loose-leaf notebooks she might just fall asleep.
Outside, Beth watched the snow melt and the gutters drip. Sun made the meadow steam. There were two samplers on the wall, stitched by some local lady in red, white and blue. One read Today Is the Beginning of the Rest of Your Life, and one read Home, Sweet Home. There was also a black-and-white photograph of a boy in a top hat and sandwich board; the placard he was wearing warned The End of the World Is at Hand. Last night she had found herself joining a circle, her right hand in a stranger's left, her left hand in a stranger's right, in a dark barn chanting Om ...
Dawn had a thing for their teacher and wondered if he knew. She wondered if he understood how sexy he looked in his blue jeans and tweeds, his brown hair curling at his collar and cheekbones to die for, his old leather vest. He was severe and brilliant and rugged and intense; he was everything Dawn wanted, and famous in their world. Once, she told Elizabeth, when he gave a party for a painter who was having a show at the college she excused herself and went upstairs in Ballard's house and took off all her clothes and pressed herself into his sheets. She wondered, could he tell?
He lived two miles north of campus, in a red farm-house with an apple orchard, and one night the three girls got high in the orchard and crept in the dark to his library window. He sat there, reading, alone. They watched him in the easy-chair, smoking, making notes in the margin of the leather book he was holding, his personal copy of Alfred North Whitehead-and that was what, Beth confessed to him later, much later, she couldn't forget (the frown on his face, the purse-lipped concentration, the reading glasses that he wore and the way he licked the pencil stub and smoothed his hair back absently, focusing, mouthing what he'd no doubt offer up in class next day as an offhand perception, a clever demurral) and that was when she understood that he required pity (though maybe it was just the grass, the sweet night breeze and crescent moon and Dawn and Charette on either side, rapt, palpitant) and would be hard to dismiss.
Richard Nixon was getting her down. Her parents had voted for Nixon, of course, and so did everybody else in what they called their crowd. Received collective wisdom from the residents of Grosse Pointe Shores was that the Chicago Eight-Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin and the rest-were clowns. It's a circus, her father announced.
What's so bad about a circus, she could remember asking, you used to take me to Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, and her mother said we're not joking here, Lizzie, all right? Some of these people are dangerous, with their weapons and clenched fists. That man Huey Newton's a crazy man, you can see it in the clothes he wears, and the other Black Panther, that man Eldridge Cleaver, is a convicted rapist, isn't he, so we can't blame the FBI for watching what they do. The problem with this country is that you kids are wrecking it, with your ridiculous slogans and your signs for Flower Power and Make Love, Not War.
She had reminded them of what they seemed to be in danger of forgetting: there's a Bill of Rights, remember? A right of free speech and assembly. Don't delude yourself, Lizzie, her father declared: it's what we used to call treason, and anyplace else but this country they'd shoot you or put you in jail.
Her mother sipped a second drink and, spearing the olive, agreed: You're giving aid and comfort to the enemy, darling, and Ho Chi Minh can applaud all your friends on TV. Anytime he feels like it he can read a transcript of the things your friends are saying and believe he'll win the war.
She had controlled herself and bit her tongue and swallowed her mother's chilled stilton and cream of asparagus soup. The chandelier was bright. It didn't matter how she told them Ho Chi Minh had better things to do than watch Americans wave banners on the nightly news, or how he wasn't reading Abbie Hoffman or admiring Jane Fonda but delivering North Vietnam out of historical bondage; he was George Washington and Simón Bolívar and Mao and maybe Jesus too all rolled up into one.
Then Katie came to clear and then she brought in the roast. Her father carved. Elizabeth wanted to scream.
You're part of the solution or you're a part of the problem, she tried to tell her parents, and tear-gas won't fix Amerika, or your precious CIA. The winds of change are everywhere, and it doesn't take a weatherman to know which way they blow ...
While Katie brought the coffee, her father leaned back in his chair. It's a strange way to change, Mr. Sieverdsen said, if you really want to make a change why not give your trust fund away?
"Why not?" her mother echoed, "if it's what you really want...."
But this was just an empty threat, and all of the family knew it: she wasn't twenty-one years old and couldn't touch the principal till she turned twenty-five. What her grandfather had left for her-the not-inconsiderable resources, as the trust's executor expressed it, of a life-time spent in service and, thereafter, speculation-would remain intact. So Beth went back to Catamount and wrote poetry and danced and studied the Western Rationalist Tradition and the History of Logic with Ballard while he smoked.
After class they walked to Commons; it was eleven o'clock. Did you notice how he looked at me, asked Dawn; when he loosened his tie and leaned back in the chair, did you see the way he stared? When you answered that question about population, the one about Malthus and life being brief, did you see him lick his lips?
The day was warming up. Beth did have a paper to write.
Excerpted from Old Scores by Nicholas Delbanco Copyright © 1997 by Nicholas Delbanco. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 9, 2008
In 1969, thirty-something Professor Paul Ballard teaches philosophy at Vermont¿s Catamount College. Paul is normally aloof in the classroom until Elizabeth Sieverdsen attends his class. The student and the teacher fall in love and begin a torrid affair that abruptly ends when she rejects his marriage proposal. She leaves him without informing him she carries his baby. Not long afterward, Paul is injured in an accident, ends his teaching career, and becomes a hermit on his remote farm. Elizabeth gives up the baby for adoption. <P>Over the years, Elizabeth marries and has children with her spouse, but never forgets her first love for Paul nor her abandonment of their child. With her marriage over and her nest empty, Elizabeth finally returns to Vermont for the first time in a quarter of a century. She meets Paul and hesitantly they try to regain what they lost. <P> OLD SCORES is an intriguing modern day retelling of the classic Abelard and Heloise tale. The story line works, especially the subplot occurring in 1969, due to the genuine feel of the interrelationships between the characters. Although not quite as masterful as WHAT REMAINS, Nicholas Delbanco provides a complex, intelligent tale centering on the difficulty of forging a relationship even when love ties the players together. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.