Friday Apr. 29, 2016

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On an Anniversary

Thirty years and more go by
In the blinking of an eye,
           And you are still the same
As when first you took my name.

Much the same blush now as then
Glimmers through the peach-pale skin.
           Time (but as with a glove)
Lightly touches you, my love.

Stand with me a minute still
While night climbs our little hill.
           Below, the lights of cars
Move, and overhead the stars.

The estranging years that come,
Come and go, and we are home.
           Time joins us as a friend,
And the evening has no end.

“On an Anniversary” by Donald Justice from Collected Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of American editor and writer Robert Gottlieb (books by this author), born in New York City (1931). He describes his childhood as “basic, garden-variety, ambitious, upwardly mobile, hard-working Jewish boy from Brooklyn.” As a teenager, he loved the novels of Jane Austen, Marcel Proust, and George Eliot, but disliked the Russians. He says, “I learned how to behave from Emma — not The Brothers Karamazov.”

Gottlieb started working in the publishing industry in 1955 as an editorial assistant at Simon and Schuster. Within ten years, he’d become editor in chief. He moved on to Knopf, and then The New Yorker, where he replaced legendary editor William Shawn for several years before returning to editing novels.

He has worked with John Cheever, Margaret Drabble, and Toni Morrison. John le Carré had it written into his contract that Gottlieb had to provide him at least one good lunch because he was tired of eating tuna sandwiches on the floor of Gottlieb’s office while they edited his book.

His first best-seller was Rona Jaffe’s racy novel The Best of Everything (1958), and in 1961, he changed the title of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-18 to Catch-22 because another war novel, Leon Uris’s Mila 18, was being published the same month as Heller’s. He says, “That is my one immortal contribution to literature.”

Gottlieb told Toni Morrison to quit her job as editor at Random House to write full-time, and allowed actress Lauren Bacall to come to his office every day to write her memoirs longhand on yellow legal pads. Bacall didn’t want a ghostwriter for what became Lauren Bacall: By Myself (1978) and Gottlieb agreed. He had assistants type the manuscript at night.

His three rules of life are, “Get it done. Do it now. Check, check, and check again.” He tells his writers: “Stop thinking about writing, and start typing! Just sit down and do it. You can’t legislate talent, but you can legislate efficiency.”

On editing, Gottlieb says: “There are editors who will always feel guilty that they aren’t writers. I can write perfectly well — anybody who’s educated can write perfectly well. But I dislike writing. It’s very, very hard, and I just don’t like the activity. Whereas reading is like breathing.”

Robert Gottlieb’s latest memoir is Avid Reader: A Life (2016).

It’s the birthday of Greek poet C.P. Cavafy (books by this author), born Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria, Egypt (1863). He spent some of his childhood in England, and a few years in Greece, but most of his life he lived in Alexandria. At the age of 29, he got a job as a clerk in the Irrigation Service of the Ministry of Public Works, and he stayed in that same job for 30 years. When he was 44 years old, he wrote: “By now I’ve gotten used to Alexandria, and it’s very likely that even if I were rich I’d stay here. But in spite of this, how the place disturbs me. What trouble, what a burden small cities are — what lack of freedom. I’d stay here (then again I’m not entirely certain that I’d stay) because it is like a native country for me, because it is related to my life’s memories. But how much a man like me — so different — needs a large city.”

His friend E.M. Forster described the poet as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe. His arms are extended, possibly. ‘Oh, Cavafy!’ Yes, it is Mr. Cavafy, and he is either going from his flat to the office, or from his office to the flat.” When he wasn’t at home or in the office, Cavafy was at a café, drinking and writing.

Cavafy barely published during his lifetime, preferring small pamphlets for his friends and acquaintances, with the occasional booklet or broadsheet. When he died of cancer on this day in 1933, his 70th birthday, he was barely known outside a few small circles. These days he is considered one of the most important modern Greek poets.

It’s the birthday of singer and songwriter Willie Nelson, born in the small farming community of Abbott, Texas (1933). He was raised by his grandparents and aunts during the Great Depression, and earned his keep by picking cotton. His grandfather gave him his first guitar and music lessons. After high school, he supported himself going door to door selling Bibles, encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners, and sewing machines.

At night, Nelson wrote songs and performed at honky-tonks with names like the County Dump and the Bloody Bucket, where the performers had to be shielded by chicken wire from flying cans and bottles. In 1959, he wrote “Night Life,” a song that was eventually recorded by more than 70 artists and sold over 30 million copies. He only made a $150 from the song, because he sold the copyright, but he used that money to buy a second-hand Buick, and he drove in that Buick to Nashville, hoping to become a country music star.

He spent the next decade writing songs for other country singers, like the song “Crazy” (1961), recorded by Patsy Cline. He grew increasingly frustrated by the music industry, and by 1971 he had divorced his second wife and lost his investment in a failed pig farm, and his house had burned to the ground. He went back to Texas and started recording his own albums. In 1975, he recorded Red Headed Stranger, a concept album about a preacher on the run after murdering his wife and her new lover. At the time, many country singers were backed by orchestras and backup singers, but Nelson recorded the album with just his acoustic guitar and a few other instruments. No one thought it would be a hit, but it sold millions of copies, and inspired a traditional country music revival.

Nelson’s memoir, It’s a Long Story: My Life (2015), came out last year. In it, he writes: “[Songs] are mysterious gifts. I know they are born out of experience and genuine grief [...] The deepest songs expose vulnerability. They strip me bare and leave me amazed.”

On this date in 1429, Joan of Arc led French forces into the English-held city of Orléans. The French and English had been embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War for 92 years. The war had originally begun over the disputed duchy of Guyenne, and indeed the French crown itself. When France’s King Charles IV died in 1328, there was no natural successor under French law, because Charles had had no sons. The English king, Edward III, had the closest blood connection because he was the son of Charles IV’s sister, Isabella. By French law, however, property could only be passed down from father to son; therefore, a more distant relative, Philip of Valois, was named the successor by a French assembly. Fighting and squabbling between the two countries dragged on through several generations and 118 years. In 1429, the conflict was between England’s Henry VI and France’s dauphin Charles (eventually crowned King Charles VII). Charles had not been crowned, because the city of Reims — the traditional site of French investiture — was under the control of the English.

Meanwhile, Joan was a peasant girl, the daughter of a tenant farmer, born in about 1412. When she was 13, she began to hear voices that she believed belonged to Christian saints. When she was 16, the voices urged her to get involved in the war. “The Voice said to me: ‘Go into France!’” she said. “I could stay no longer. It said to me: ‘Go, raise the siege which is being made before the City of Orléans. Go!’ [...] And I replied that I was but a poor girl, who knew nothing of riding or fighting.” The voices told her to come to the aid of Charles, so she traveled to the nearest garrison. She wasn’t successful on her first attempt, but returned the following January, and this time was taken to the would-be king. He wasn’t sure he should trust her visions, so he had church officials interrogate her to make sure she wasn’t a heretic. The calm and determined 17-year-old girl won him over, and he supplied her with armor, a banner, and troops. She said that a sword would be found for her at the church of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois, and it was. After dictating several defiant letters to the English, Joan led the troops and a supply train to the besieged city of Orléans.

The French forces kept the English occupied on one side of the city while boats set sail down the Loire River to pick up Joan and the supplies. Joan arrived in the city safely at about eight in the evening. She spent the next few days raising morale and distributing food throughout the city. She sent taunting messages to the English, who called her a witch. Although she never actually engaged in combat, she led the charge in several battles, with her banner flying proudly. The English retreated at last from Orléans on May 8. The siege was lifted, and the Battle of Orléans marked a major turning point in the Hundred Years’ War. Joan, the peasant girl, was now the heroine of the French people.

Joan continued to lead French troops for the next few months. When Reims was liberated in July, the dauphin was finally crowned Charles VII. Joan of Arc knelt at his feet. She was captured in May 1430 and turned over to the English. Charles was in the middle of peace negotiations, and made no move to save her. A pro-English tribunal conducted her trial in Rouen. She was convicted of witchcraft, relapsed heresy — a capital offense — and cross-dressing, which was also considered a form of heresy. “We denounce you as a rotten member,” her sentence read, “which, so that you shall not infect the other members of Christ, must be cast out of the unity of the Church, cut off from her body, and given over to the secular power: we cast you off, separate and abandon you.” She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, and her remains were thrown into the Seine. It would be almost 20 years before Charles VII would order any sort of inquiry into her trial, and she was posthumously acquitted in 1456. The Roman Catholic Church made her a saint in 1920.

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