17/8/97 In New York, instead of shopping with Zoe...
|Sunday, August 17,1997
The Sunday Times, Page 4
In New York, instead of shopping with Zoe...
I MET and interviewed Anatole Broyard, my all-time favourite book reviewer and columnist, nine years ago in The New York Times canteen.
He was 67 years old, with curly grey hair and mischievous eyes, and he looked trim and fit in a checked shirt and a pair of blue jeans.
He had been a book critic for the paper for about 15 years, and was now an editor of the influential New York Times Book Review, a tabloid supplement which came freeñ and still doesñ with the Sunday edition of the paper.
While waiting at the lift on his floor to go up to the canteen, we met another well-known critic, James Atlas, who, like most of the other Times journalists, was in a suit.
At the time, there was a piece in Vanity Fair magazine which reviewed the New York Times book reviewers written by the acerbic James Wolcott.
Wolcott skewered three Times reviewers. "They chloroform culture into a state of suspended animation," he fumed, and described one of them, Mitchiko Kakutani, who still reviews books for The Times, as "a mousy girl" who prepared for her work the way she prepared for her PhD thesis.
They were unlike their predecessor, Broyard, he said, who "was a serious pro who often had a silken rapport with the novel under review", and was "an Epicurean of touch and palette".
At the lift, Atlas asked Broyard if he had read that piece. The latter said he had, and they both laughed. I said something, to show that I too, had read the piece, but like the few other New York Times journalists I had met, Atlas showed no curiosity about me at all. He acted as though I was not there.
New Yorkers are probably the most provincial of people, because they are fiercely proud of their city and believe the world revolves around it. The world certainly did at one timeñbut no longer.
William Safire, the former public relations man who was hawking kitchen cabinets when he charmed President Nixon and became his spin-doctor, and now a grumpy fixture at the Times has kept sniping at Singaporeñ perhaps because the country had the temerity to cane a half-Jewish American delinquent and he wants to earn his brownie points with his Jewish mastersñ is a latter-day example, although, strictly speaking, he has never been a New Yorker.
Sadly, often when you scratch away the righteous rhetoric of people like Safire, you see racism and the conviction of white supremacy.
Broyard was not a provincial though. He asked me about Singapore, and wondered if people on the other side of the globe really wanted to read an article about him, a "mere literary journalist".
He was no bookworm either.
"I have friends who went to Paris and never saw the outside of libraries. They are
bookworms. I'm not like that. I like to play," he said.
I asked him if he was still the "white-collared bohemian" who had come out of Greenwich Village in the late '40s, but he said no.
"I've got a pretty house in Connecticut and another in Martha's Vineyard. I go for holidays in Europe and I like to live well, although I'm not a rich man. I spend all my money, I don't save."
And because he did not save, he told me, he could not afford to even think about retirement.
Two years after I met him, I read that he had died of cancer. At his memorial service, the eminent critic Alfred Kazin said in a eulogy: "What made him different... was an addiction to literature by no means common among literary journalists...
"I am a writer who has had to earn his living as a professor, and Anatole's burning, grasping insistence upon recalling the immortal life in certain favourite books was in such contrast to most of the professors of literature I knew...
"Clemenceau said that war was too serious to be left to the generals; I had long known that literature was too serious to be left to professors."
In Singapore, many in the arts community have always demanded that their works be reviewed by "qualified" journalists or professors who have been schooled formally in their disciplines.
I cannot persuade them how wrong they are, so maybe if they are reading this column, allow me to say to them that Broyard was never formally schooled in literature, and also, that the former Times movie critic, Vincent Canby, had told me that film-school graduates made the worst film critics, because they wrote in a jargon that was incomprehensible to the interested lay reader.
For much of the '80s, I had subscribed to the Book Review just to read Broyard. Not long after his death, I stopped my subscription because I could not find anyone in the supplement who could engage me the way he did.
Now, I get the Review as part of the Sunday New York Times in the office, and I read it as part of my work. But I miss Broyard.
BROYARD wrote only two books in his lifetime, one about his illness, and the other, an unfinshed memoir of his Greenwich Village days in the late 40s, after he had returned from the war.
In New York recently, I got hold of the new paperback release of his memoir Kafka Was The Rage (Vintage, 1997), and spent a most pleasurable day in my hotel room savouring it, with a half-bottle of Chardonnay.
I guess I could have arranged to go out shopping instead with Zoe Tay, who was there to attend a six-week acting workshop, but the call of the book was more urgent.
"The Village was as close in 1946 as it would ever come to Paris in the '20s... The streets and bars were full of writers and painters and the kind of young men and women who liked to be around them.
"In Washington Square, would-be novelists and poets toss a football near the fountain and girls just out of Ivy League colleges looked at the landscape with art history in their eyes. People on the benches held books in their hands," Broyard writes.
Taking advantage of the GI Bill, he enrolled in the New School of Social Research and went to classes three nights a week.
Many of the teachers were professors who had fled from Hitler on the same boat as the pyschoanalysts, and he got to study with people like Eric Fromm, who belonged to the Third Force psychologists, as distinct from the Freudians, who believed that mental illnesses were caused by repressions of conflicts in the unconscious, and the behaviourists like Wilfred Skinner, who proposed that all human behaviour could be engineered.
Fromm was one of the foremost exponents of existential psychology, next to Abraham Maslow, who espoused that "freedom is nothing more than the capacity to follow the voice of reason, of health, of well-being, of conscience, against the voices of irrational passions".
People were unwilling to accept the anguish of freedom, to make individual choices, he said.
Fromm writes incantations that used to send me rushing for a pen and ruler to underline his passages. One example:
"Man transcends all other life because he is, for the first time, life aware of itself. Man is in nature, subject to its dictates and accidents, yet transcends nature because he lacks the unawareness which makes the animal part of natureñas one with it.
"Man is confronted with the frightening conflict of being the prisoner of nature, yet being free in his thoughts; being a part of nature, and yet to be as it were a freak of nature; being neither here nor there.
"Human awareness has made man a stranger in the world, separate, lonely and frightened."
Broyard approached Fromm to be pyschoanalysed, but the latter referred him to someone else, who was also a revisionist. "That was what I wanted, to be revised," he writes. "I saw myself as a first draft."
He told the analyst he was disappointed in love, because he was not "transfigured" by it, the way people in novels did ñ "elevated, made different, lifted out of their ordinariness".
He gave up analysis eventually because he had wanted to discuss his life with the analyst not as a patient, but "as if we were two literary critics discussing a novel... because I had a literature rather than a personality, a set of fictions about myself".
He talks about his passion for books: " ... in 1946 in the Village, our feelings about booksñI'm talking about my friends and myselfñwent beyond love. It was as if we didn't know where we ended and books began ... We didn't simply read books, we became them. We took them into our ourselves and made them into our histories."
He was also a women's man, at a time when sex was the last thing a well-brought up girl would give to a man ñ"an ultimate or ultimatum".
This is the most beautiful passage in the book:
"One of the things we've lost is the terrific coaxing that used to go on between men and women, the man pleading with a girl to sleep with him and the girl pleading with him to be patient.
"I remember the feeling of being incandescent with desire, blessed with it, of talking, talking wonderfully, like singing an opera. It was a time of exaltation, this coaxing, as if I was calling up out of myself a better and more deserving man...
"Undressing was a drama in itself. A girl standing with her arms behind her back, at the clasp of her bra, had some of the beauty of a crucifixion. She also looked as if she was hiding something behind her, a gift.
"Pausing, gazing past me into the middle distance, her arms still back, handcuffed by hesitation and desire, she was trying to see the future or the end of love. And when at last her breasts sprang loose, she looked down at them with as much amazement as I did."
I had to stop for breath after I had underlined the passage. Can die! as we say here.
When I finished reading the slim volumeñall of 149 pagesñI was reluctant to let go. Just then, a friend from Austin, Texas, called, and asked: "What are you doing, staying in a hotel room, when you should be out there. I say, you're in New York."
And so I went out to a blues bar near the Village, and had two rum-and-cokes.
After midnight, I got the taxi driver to drop me off at Times Square, so that I could look at the Times Building and the cheap hotel opposite it where I had stayed when I met Broyard.
I was filled with a certain sadness, for the loss of innocence, and the loss of the easy access that literature used to provide me to the kind of wonder and exhilaration that Broyard lived by.