Read an Excerpt
By Alison Lurie
Random House Alison Lurie
All right reserved. ISBN: 0812976312
As I walked by myself
And talked to myself,
Myself said unto me,
Look to thyself,
Take care of thyself,
For nobody cares for thee.
On a cold blowy February day a woman is boarding the ten a.m. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog. The woman's name is Virginia Miner: she is fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried--the sort of person that no one ever notices, though she is an Ivy League college professor who has published several books and has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children's literature.
The dog that is trailing Vinnie, visible only to her imagination, is her familiar demon or demon familiar, known to her privately as Fido and representing self-pity. She visualizes him as a medium-sized dirty-white long-haired mutt, mainly Welsh terrier: sometimes trailing her silently, at other times whining and panting and nipping at her heels; when bolder, dashing round in circles trying to trip her up, or at least get her to stoop down so that he may rush at her, knock her to the ground, and cover her with sloppy kisses. Vinnie knows very well that Fido wants to get onto the plane with her, but she hopes to leave him behind, as she has successfully done on other trips abroad.Recent events, however, and the projected length of her stay, make this unlikely.
Vinnie is leaving today for six months in England on a foundation grant. There, under her professional name of V. A. Miner, she will continue her study of the folk-rhymes of schoolchildren. She has made this journey a number of times, and through a process of trial and error reduced its expense and discomfort to a minimum. She always chooses a daytime charter flight, preferring those on which no films are shown. If she could afford it, she would pay the regular fare so as to avoid boarding delays (she has already stood in various lines for nearly an hour); but that would be foolishly extravagant. Her grant is small, and she will have to watch expenses carefully as it is.
Though patience is held to be a virtue most appropriate to women, especially aging women, Vinnie has always particularly disliked waiting for anything, and never does so if it can be avoided. Now, for instance, she elbows her way deftly past less experienced passengers who are searching for their seat numbers or are encumbered with excess luggage or with children, excusing herself in a thin pleasant voice. By crossing through the galley to the far aisle and back again between two rows of seats, she outflanks a massed confusion of obvious rubes with carry-on bags labeled sun tours. In less time than it takes to read this paragraph she has made her way to a window seat near an exit in the nonsmoking section, pausing only to extract the London Times and British Vogue from a magazine rack. (Once the plane is airborne, the stewardess will distribute periodicals to all the passengers, but those Vinnie prefers may vanish before they reach her.)
Following her usual procedure, Vinnie slides into her place and unzips her boots. In stocking feet she climbs onto the seat and opens the overhead locker; since she is barely over five feet tall, this is the only way she can reach it. She removes two pillows and a loose-woven blue blanket, which she drops onto the center seat beside her handbag and her British periodicals, thus tacitly claiming this space if--as is likely in midweek and mid-February--it hasn't been assigned to anyone. Then she arranges her worn wool-lined raincoat, her floppy beige felt hat, and her amber-and-beige Liberty-print wool shawl in the locker, in such a way that only the rudest of fellow passengers will attempt to encroach upon them. She slams the locker shut with some difficulty, and sits down. She stows her boots under her own seat along with a carton of duty-free Bristol Cream sherry, and puts on a pair of folding slippers. She arranges one pillow beside her head and wedges the other between her hip and the arm of the chair. Finally she smooths her crisply cut graying hair, leans back, and with a sigh fastens the seatbelt across her tan wool sweater and skirt.
A disinterested observer, Vinnie is quite aware, might well consider these maneuvers and condemn her as self-concerned and grasping. In this culture, where energy and egotism are rewarded in the young and good-looking, plain aging women are supposed to be self-effacing, uncomplaining--to take up as little space and breathe as little air as possible. All very well, she thinks, if you travel with someone dear to you or at least familiar: someone who will help you stow away your coat, tuck a pillow behind your head, find you a newspaper--or if you choose, converse with you.
But what of those who travel alone? Why should Vinnie Miner, whose comfort has been disregarded by others for most of her adult life, disregard her own comfort? Why should she allow her coat, hat, and belongings to be crushed by the coats and hats and belongings of younger, larger, handsomer persons? Why should she sit alone for seven or eight hours, pillowless and chilled, reading an outdated copy of Punch, with her feet swollen and her pale amber eyes watering from the smoke of the cigarette fiends in the adjoining seats? As she often says to herself--though never aloud, for she knows how unpleasant it would sound--why shouldn't she look out for herself? Nobody else will.
But such internal arguments, frequent as they are with Vinnie, occupy little of her mind now. The uneven, uncharacteristically loud sigh she gave as she sank back against the scratchy blue plush was not a sigh of contentment, or even one of relief: it was an exhalation of wretchedness. Her travel routine has been performed by rote; if she were alone, she would break into wails of misery and vexation, and stain the London Times with her tears.
Twenty minutes ago, while waiting in the departure lounge in a cheerful mood, Vinnie read in a magazine of national circulation a scornful and disparaging reference to her life's work. Projects such as hers, the article stated, are a prime example of the waste of public funds, the proliferation of petty and useless scholarship, and the general weakness and folly of the humanities in America today. Do we really need a scholarly study of playground doggerel? inquired the writer, one L. D. Zimmern, a professor of English at Columbia. No doubt Mr. or Ms. Miner would answer this query by assuring us of the social, historical, or literary value of "Ring-around-a-rosy," he continued, sawing through the supports of any possible answer; but he, for one, was not convinced.
What makes this unprovoked attack especially hideous is that for over thirty years the Atlantic has been Vinnie's favorite magazine. Though she was raised in the suburbs of New York and teaches at an upstate university, her imaginative loyalties are to New England. She has often thought that American culture took a long downward step when its hegemony passed from Boston to New York in the late nineteenth century; and it has been a comfort to her that the Atlantic continues to be edited from Back Bay. When she pictures her work receiving general public recognition, it is to this magazine that she awards the honor of discovery. She has fantasized the process often: the initial letter of inquiry, the respectfully eager manner of the interviewer, the title of the finished essay; the moment when her colleagues at Corinth University and elsewhere will open the magazine and see her name printed on its glossy pages in its characteristic and elegant typeface. (Vinnie's ambition, though steady and ardent, is comparatively modest: it hasn't occurred to her that her name might be printed upon the cover of the Atlantic.) She has imagined all that will follow: the sudden delighted smiles of her friends; the graceless grins of those who are not her friends and have undervalued both her and her subject. The latter group, alas, will be much more numerous.
For the truth is that children's literature is a poor relation in her department--indeed, in most English departments: a stepdaughter grudgingly tolerated because, as in the old tales, her words are glittering jewels of a sort that attract large if not equally brilliant masses of undergraduates. Within the departmental family she sits in the chimney-corner, while her idle, ugly siblings dine at the chairman's table--though, to judge by enrollment figures, many of them must spout toads and lizards.
Well, Vinnie thinks bitterly, now she has got her wish; her work has been mentioned in the Atlantic. Just her luck--because surely there were others whose project titles might have attracted the spiteful attention of L. D. Zimmern. But of course it was she he chose, what else could she expect? Vinnie realizes that Fido has followed her onto the plane and is snuffling at her legs, but she lacks the energy to push him away.
Above her seat the warning light has been turned on; the engines begin to vibrate as if with her own internal tremor. Vinnie stares through the streaked, distorting oblong of glass at gray tarmac, pitted heaps of dirty congealed snow, other planes taxiing toward takeoff; but what she sees is a crowd of Atlantic magazines queuing for departure or already en route, singly or in squadrons, flying over the United States in the hands and briefcases of travelers, hitching their way in automobiles, loaded onto trucks and trains, bundled and tied for sale on newsstands. She visualizes what must come or has already come of this mass migration: she sees, all over the country--in homes and offices, in libraries and dentists' waiting rooms--her colleagues, ex-colleagues, students, ex-students, neighbors, ex-neighbors, friends, and ex-friends (not to mention the members of the Foundation Grants Committee). All of them, at this moment or some other moment, are opening the Atlantic, turning its glossy white pages, coming upon that awful paragraph. She imagines which ones will laugh aloud; which will read the sentences out with a sneering smile; which will gasp with sympathy; and which will groan, thinking or saying how bad it looks for the Department or for the Foundation. "Hard on Vinnie," one will remark. "But you have to admit there's something a little comic about the title of her proposal: 'A comparative investigation of the play-rhymes of British and American Children'--well now, really."
About its title, perhaps; not about its content, as she has spent years proving. Trivial as it may seem, her material is rich in meaning. For example--Vinnie, almost involuntarily, begins composing in her head a letter to the editor of the Atlantic--consider the verse to which Professor Zimmern took such particular exception:
Ring around a rosy
Pocketful of posies.
We all fall down.
--This rhyme appears from internal as well as external evidence to date very possibly from the Great Plague of 1665. If so, the "posies" may be the nosegays of flowers and herbs carried by citizens of London to ward off infection, while "Ashes, ashes," perhaps refers to the burning of dead bodies that littered the streets.
--If Professor Zimmern had troubled to do his research . . . if he had merely taken the time to inquire of any authority in the field--Vinnie continues her imaginary letter--he . . . he would be alive today. Unbidden, these words appear in her mind to complete the sentence. She sees L. D. Zimmern, whom she has never met but imagines (inaccurately) to be fat and bald, as a plague-swollen, discolored corpse. He is lying on the cobblestones of a seventeenth- century London alley, his clothes foully stained with vomit, his face blackened and contorted, his limbs hideously askew in the death agony, his faded posy of herbs wilting beside him.
--Many more of these apparently "meaningless" verses, she resumes, a little shocked by her own imagination, have similar hidden historical and social referents, and preserve in oral form . . .
While the stewardess, in a strained BBC accent, begins her rote exhortation, Vinnie continues her letter to the editor. Phrases she has used many times in lectures and articles repeat themselves within her head, interspersed with those coming over the loudspeakers. "Children's game-rhymes/Place the life vest over your head/oldest universal literature/Bring the straps to the front and fasten them securely/ representing for millions of people their earliest and often their only exposure to/Pulling on the cord will cause the vest to become inflated with air." Inflated with air, indeed. As she knows from bitter experience, nothing is ever gained by sending such letters. Either they are blandly refused ("We regret that our limited space prevents . . .") or, worse, they are accepted and printed weeks or months later, reminding everyone of your discomfiture long after they had forgotten about it, and making you seem a sore loser.
Not only mustn't she write to the Atlantic: she must take care never to mention its attack on her to anyone, friend or foe. In academic life it is considered weak and undignified to complain of your reviews. Indeed, in Vinnie's experience, the only afflictions it is really safe to mention are those shared by all your colleagues: the weather, inflation, delinquent students, and so forth. Bad publicity must be dealt with as Vinnie was once taught by her mother to deal with flaws in her adolescent appearance: in total silence. "If you have a spot on your face or your dress, Vinnie, for goodness' sake don't mention it. At best you'll be reminding people of something unpleasant about yourself; at worst you'll call it to the attention of those who might never have noticed." Yes; no doubt a very sensible policy. Its only disadvantage is that Vinnie will never know who has noticed this new ugly spot and who hasn't. Never, never know. Fido, who has been standing with his forepaws on her knees, whining hopefully, now scrambles into her lap.
The rackety roar of the engines increases; the plane begins to trundle down the runway, gathering speed. At what seems the last possible moment it lurches unevenly upward, causing the usual shudder in Vinnie's bowels and the sensation of having been struck on the back of the neck with the seat-cushion. She swallows with difficulty and glances toward the window, where a frozen gray section of Long Island suburb is wheeling by at an unnatural angle. She feels queasy, disoriented, damaged.
Excerpted from Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.