January 25th, 2015

Out of My Time, by Marya Mannes (1971)

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outofmytimeThis is one of the most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time.

Marya Mannes was a woman who got around with a capital “A.” Her parents, David Mannes and Clara Damrosch Mannes, were among the most popular and respected classical musicians of the early 20th century, and through their New York apartment flowed a constant stream of talents such as Pablo Casals, Alfred Cortot, and Arthur Schnabel, as well as Clara’s brothers Frank and Walter. Her brother Leopold was a celebrated concert pianist, married one of George Gershwin’s sisters, and, along with fellow musician, Leopold Godowsky, Jr., invented the process behind Kodachrome color film.

When she was 19, she travelled alone to England, where she studied with sculptor Frank Dobson and socialized with various members of the Bloomsbury set before heading off to Paris and the Riviera, where she partied with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Murphys. Returning to the U. S., she wrote a play that was produced (unsuccessfully) on Broadway, married Jo Mielziner (“the most successful set designer of the Golden era of Broadway,” according to Wikipedia), and wrote and modelled for Vogue. She left Mielziner to live with Francisco Duran-Reynals, a pioneering researcher into cancer virology, then travelled back to Europe, where she married the wealthy American artist, Richard Blow. She and Blow enjoyed life in their palatial villa in the hills outside Florence until they fled to the U. S. just a few days before the Germans invaded Poland in 1939.

Her gift for languages and wide network of contacts came to the attention of the Office of War Information and, later, the OSS, which sent her to Portugal and Spain–where she also managed to write a series of “Letters” for The New Yorker. Then it was back again to the U. S., where she brought along Paul Cavaillez–a French aviator later convicted as a Nazi spy–to one of the first public showings of film from the concentration camps at Belsen and Buchenwald. Then back to Europe, this time working for Vogue, and on to Egypt and Palestine, where she watched the arrival of one of the first ships carrying Holocaust survivors to their new homeland. After that, she published as best-selling novel, Message from a Stranger and married husband #3, former R. A. F. pilot and British aviation executive Christopher Clarkson.

When she and Clarkson moved back to New York City after his assignment as air attache in Washington, D. C., Mannes started writing regularly for The Reporter and became one of the earliest critics of television–and then, one of the earliest critics to appear on television, in the early days of The Huntley-Brinkley Report. And, ironically, managed to get some early and strong pro-feminist pieces into the pages of such magazines as Vogue, Redbook, and McCalls. By the late 1960s, her face and name was so widely recognized that T. V. Guide could feature her in an advertisement as a foil to Ed Sullivan.
tvguidead
And in and amongst all this, she carried on a series of affairs, for which she offers no regrets or apologies:

I did not then–and do not now–understand the term “promiscuous”: used pejoratively, of course, and only of women. What was wong with giving and receiving warmth, pleasure, affection, and release even if these could no qualify as love? If it was not wrong for men (Oh yes, philanderer, rake, swordsman, what have you–all implicitly more flattering than diminishing) why was it wrong for women? One at a time, to be sure. For one night, or ten, or two years. But how could you know a man you liked without knowing his body?

Of course you accepted the consequences of these acts. You accepted uncertainty, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and insecurity. But you lived as full as you could, and often as deeply.

So why my frustration?

I think there’s a subtle clue in the passage above. Note that in the space of one paragraph, she shifts from first to second person. Now, it’s not uncommon for a memoirist to address her younger self as “you,” but in this case, the “you” seems less the younger Marya than an ambiguous other person that could be herself but might just as easily be the reader or women of her generation or … well, you can make your own guess. Although Mannes quotes from her own diaries, letters, articles and unpublished works throughout the book, there is always an odd sense of the impersonal in her tone.

Take, for example, how she relates her experience of early motherhood:

There–really there–a child. And I was a mother.

In love, yes, but not in nuture. A nurse was already waiting at home. There would always be nurses. What did I know about taking care of a child, free soul over thirty, always in other worlds? No more prepared to be a mother than his sire a father?

… But once maternal demands began to impinge, I began to retreat. Like most men who have successfully dodged for millennia the actual nuture of child and home (owed equally with their women) I wanted to pull free of the basic hourly, daily matters of care. I loved to hold my child but not diaper him.

While I give Marya Mannes full marks for her honesty, I can’t read the above without thinking it was written more as an editorial commentary than a felt memory. “His sire?” Who used “sire” outside of animal husbandry in the last hundred years? A few diaper changes might have provided something missing in much of Out Of My Time: sensations.

This book is full of thoughts and reflections but largely empty of the things that make one person’s memories real to another–the specific details of touch, taste, sight, smell and sound. When she does try to convey them, the result is unconvincing. Here, she describes going out to meet a ship bringing Jewish refugees into Haifa harbor: “Alongside the hull, the smell from the black portholes just above our heads was overpoweringly foul: the breath of a thousand latrines and a hundred hours of sweat.” Maybe it’s just me, but this clunky prose seems like a second-hand memory rather than something still vivid and felt twenty-some years later.

Too much of Out Of My Time is life in the abstract rather than the immediate. Although Mannes dedicates the book “To my son, with love and respect,” he goes unnamed and is mentioned, glancingly, less than five times after he’s born (e.g., “The adventurer in me would often continue to prevail, at a child’s expense, over the parent”). “A child”? His name was David Jeremy Blow, for the record. Neither do her three husbands get names. I had to rely on her New York Time obituary for theirs.

And this is what makes Out Of My Time such a frustrating book. Marya lived a remarkable, diverse, creative, original, and significant life. Her autobiography ought to be fascinating, a page-turner, full of anecdotes and insights. Instead, too much of the time it reads like War and Peace–specifically, the Second Epilogue, where dancing Natasha and dithering Pierre are replaced by Tolstoy the would-be philospher of history (“What force moves nations?”). Had Tolstoy not preceded the Second Epilogue with a thousand pages of rich, vivid, intensely felt fiction, no one would read War and Peace today. Just as almost no one reads Out Of My Time now.


Out of My Time, Marya Mannes
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.


 

January 20th, 2015

Cousin Georgia who was beautiful …, from Along Came a Witch, by Helen Bevington (1976)

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As we left the theater, I was thinking of a cousin of mine, Cousin Georgia, who had been not deaf or mute but desperate. The particular memory had to do with her going to a movie one Saturday afternoon. I never knew her story, more than that Cousin Georgia who was beautiful was unhappy, and she lost her mind as if she had mislaid her purse while watching a picture in a movie house. This occurred after her divorce, after the loss of her child, after she had returned alone to her parents’ house. Some plot unfolded on the screen recounting her own tragedy. Raising her fists she stood up in the theater, screamed out “You can’t do this to me!” and was frantic, from that moment insane. She lives on in an asylum.

from Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington


 

January 19th, 2015

Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington

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Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Along Came the Witch'The works of Helen Bevington–poet, memoirist, and long-time professor of English at Duke University–remain one of the most delightful discoveries of my years of exploring in the realm of neglected books. I started out 2013 with her trilogy of memoirs–Charley Smith’s Girl (1965); A Book and a Love Affair (1968); and The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm (1971)–and since then, have added most of her other books to my collection. So I thought a dip into her oeuvre would be a nice start to this year of reading the works of women writers.

Bevington, whose comic verse was often featured in The New Yorker and New York Times Book Review, began writing a memoir in the early 1960s. The book, which became Charley Smith’s Girl, was as much a portrait of her parents, Charley and Lizzie, whose divorce, when Helen was still a very young girl, was considered quite scandalous at the time. Not long before it was published, Bevington’s husband, Merle, also an English professor at Duke, died suddenly of a brain tumor at the age of 64.

To honor Merle’s memory, she wrote A Book and a Love Affair, which recounted their meeting while students at Columbia University in the 1920s and the early years of their marriage. She followed this with The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, which covered their move to North Carolina and the experience of raising their two sons, Phillip and David, both of whom became distinguished professors–Phillip of physics and David of English. This book concluded with Phillip’s recovery from a near-fatal car accident that left him a paraplegic.

Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960’s, published five years later, contains excerpts from the journal she had been keeping for many years. Most entries are less than a page long and undated aside from being collected by month and year. Often she reprints the poems she had written at the time, many of them inspired by her reading or the passing seasons.

The title of Along Came the Witch is taken from one of her poems:

Lost in the night, my love,
Are those who could never tell
The perishable world from the imperishable.

So they lived everafter, rich
In fairytales and in general–
Till along came the witch.

The inevitable, though always unexpected, appearance of evil and pain is a recurrent theme throughout this journal. In the first few years, she lost her mother and husband, both to diseases that were long-diagnosed but late, abrupt, and harsh in their effects. And throughout the decade, she saw violence and conflict erupting in the world: the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; the start of the Vietnam War; civil rights protests and political and race riots; demonstrations and even tear gas on her own campus. For Bevington, the 1960s were her anni horribili.

Yet these pages are also filled with beauty, comedy, and love. She was as quick to take note of a new bird around her house or the quirks of her neighbors as the headlines on the TV news. She delighted in observing her young grandchildren coming to their individual perceptions of the world and ways of expressing themselves. She relished a good anecdote, like her hairdresser’s flipping and wrecking a brand new car just to avoid running over a grey squirrel, and the unique language of her house cleaner: “When things go wrong in Rosa’s life and her head is blouzed up with trouble (as when her car was stolen last Saturday night), she takes some jolt medicine.” “Rosa has a got-rights cat. It has got rights the same as everybody.”

Each semester, she approaches each new class and group of students with a mix of trepidation, dismay, and wonder. While she notes petulance and hair lengths increase over the years, she still manages to find a remarkable appetite for learning to love and understand poetry. Bevington was one of the most beloved and respected teachers at Duke, and her joy in this work belies her anxiety about being up to the task. As one of the few faculty members without a PhD, she felt a certain amount of inferiority to her peers, and one of the bright spots in the decade was her acceptance as a full professor in 1970.

Her love of poetry and literature lights up these pages as well. A voracious reader, she is constantly reflecting on what she’s reading, and the depth and richness of her memory of what she’s read is remarkable. Like Isabel Paterson, she seems to have read everything and remembered everything, especially snatches of poetry and conversations. I dog-eared a couple dozen pages just to remind myself to check out the books she mentions.

The central theme of the book, however, is her struggle with learning to live alone. She was in her late fifties when Merle died, and she would live over 35 years as a widow, almost a long as the two were married. In writing of her parents, she concluded that neither offered her a way of living that she could accept for herself: “My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair. Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.”

She struggled to come to an understanding of this third way throughout the rest of her life. Her last book, in fact, was titled, The Third and Only Way: Reflections on Staying Alive (1996). About a year after Merle’s death, she did come to realize something about how she would have to move forward:

As I drove to the University this morning, thinking about Richard Wilbur whose poetry we would read in class, saying over a line of his, “It is by words and the defeat of words–” I made a sudden resolution, at the stoplight of Broad and Club Boulevard, to unlearn my words.

I will stop using the word lonely. I will change it to independent or alone. Aloneness is not the same thing as loneliness. I will live an independent life, fraught with freedom. I will stop explaining my plight to myself, using charged words like fear, like grief. It is not only cowardly but Byronic. (Byron: “I learned to love despair”). By the defeat of words I grieve. It is myself I mourn for.

Bevington went on to publish two more books of from her journals: The Journey is Everything: A Journal of the Seventies and The World and the Bo Tree, based her travels in the 1980s. I look forward to spending these decades with her.


Along Came a Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington
New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1976


 

January 14th, 2015

“Take Their Little Necks,” by Loureine Aber, from We. the Musk Chasers

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flappers

Take Their Little Necks

I ask you to be fierce, Chicago,
As a drowning man in the first spasm
Fierce first of all to your women.
Trip them when they come mincing down the Avenue,
Take their little necks and squeeze them,
Frantically.
(Women grow scatter-brained with no fingers at them,
There is no white glory to them if they are not hurt,
Oh, the unhurt women you see ogling at the shops.
Paint and cloth!)

And when you get a chance at men.
Be fierce with them;
It is their hands have made you,
Their insistent, silly howling for the moon.
When they wrought you, Chicago,
They wrought pigstys out of gauze.
And fine dreams.

from We, the Musk Chasers, by Loureine Aber
Chicago: Ralph Fletcher Seymour, 1921

Available on the Internet Archive: Link.

I like this poem because the poet’s voice is ferocious. She invites Sandburg’s Hog Butcher of the World, City of Big Shoulders, to wring the necks of her men and women with the facts of the real world.

We, the Musk Chasers–one of the odder titles of its time–was Loureine Aber’s only book, and at that, was a cheap paperback edition from a minor Chicago publisher. A graduate of Oberlin College, she had a number of poems published in Harriet Monroe’s magazine, including a feature spot right after Wallace Stevens in the October 1921 issue. She worked in advertising and then in the offices of the Leschin Apparel Company and boarded with a fellow Oberlin graduate, Lillian Blackwell Dial, and her husband. She died in 1930, a few days past her 37th birthday.

She was in her late 20s when she wrote “Take Their Little Necks.” She’d already been out, presumably on her own, for some years. Was she writing out of frustration with her own situation or with the fact that so many others hadn’t yet come to share her outlook on the world? Another poem in the collection, “You Will Never Go Picking Wild Flowers,” tells a well-to-do woman that she can never be carefree again because “You must go stiff now/Furs in storage/Diamonds in vault/Limousine waiting.” And was to make of “Four Corners of a Room”? Is this a celebration of limits or a declaration of resignation?

It is only four corners of a room
That keep me from becoming God.
I might leap out and spin stars,
I might address myself to grass
And long windy nights.
But these four corners hold me,
They have memories in them.

They will keep me fast

I am glad to be kept from being God.

It is certainly tempting to weave a whole story for Loureine Aber out of the lines of We, the Musk Chasers.

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.


 

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