Thursday Nov. 16, 2017

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A Pink Hotel in California

My father chops with his axe
and the leaves fall off the trees.
It’s nineteen forty-three.
He’s splitting wood for the winter.
His gun leans behind the door,
beside his goose-greased workboots.
Smoke comes out of the metal chimney.

At night I sleep in a bunk bed.
The waves stroke the lake.
In the mornings it is so cold
we can see our breath
and the ice on the rocky shore.
My mother rakes the ashes
out from under the oven.

This is comfort and safety,
the sound of chopping in the empty forest,
the smell of smoke.
It’s nineteen forty-three.
After it rains we have a bonfire.
The children dance around it,
singing about the war
which is happening elsewhere.
What has become of them, those words
that once shone with such
glossy innocence?
I rolled them in my mouth like marbles,
they tasted pure:
smoke, gun, boots, oven.
The fire. The scattered ashes. The winter forest.

I sit in a pink room;
the chest of drawers
has antique man-bored wormholes.
Isn’t there enough of the past
without making more?

It’s nineteen forty-three.
It’s nineteen ninety-four,
I can hear the sound of the chopping.
It’s because of the ocean,
it’s because of the war
which won’t stay under the waves and leaves.
The carpet smells of ashes.

This is the pink hotel
where everything recurs
and nothing is elsewhere.

“A Pink Hotel in California” by Margaret Atwood from Morning in the Burned House. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1913 that the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was published. He’d begun work on it in 1909, after taking a nibble of a French pastry cookie dipped in tea. He took it to several publishers, and it was turned down by each one of them. The editor of a prestigious French literary magazine advised that it not be published because of syntactical errors. And one editor said, “My dear fellow, I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”

So in the end, Proust had to come up with the money himself to self-publish the book, and the first volume appeared in print on this day 104 years ago. He worked on the story for the rest of his life. It was published in seven volumes, and in total it’s about 1.5 million words long.

 The novel begins: “For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself, ‘I’m falling asleep.’ And half and hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me. […] I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I awoke […] Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit.”

It’s the birthday of American author Andrea Barrett (1954) (books by this author), born in Boston. She’s best known for novels that explore the relationships between science, history, and humanity, like Ship Fever (1995), which won the National Book Award. Many of her characters are female scientists, often 19th-century biologists.

Barrett became an avid reader early on because the Bookmobile visited her neighborhood once a week. She says: “I would be starved for that visit all week long, and I’d strip the shelves when it arrived. One driver allowed the children to take books from whatever shelves they could reach, and since I’ve always been tall, I could reach the highest shelf, where all the adult books were, at a pretty young age. That worked well for me.”

After college, where she studied zoology and medieval and reformation history, she started writing, holding down jobs like billing clerk, dental assistant, and customer service representative in a corrugated-box factory. The jobs could be tedious, but they also helped her figure out what she wanted to write, and how. She says: “Now it seems to me that what I have, in part, is the mind of a mid-Victorian naturalist. I want to name things; I want to tell stories describing the things I observe.”

After attending a writing conference, her instructor offered to read her manuscript, which later became her first novel, Lucid Stars. His critique was kind, but brutal. She recalled: “The news came deftly padded with reassurance about my probable ability to write, the not-bad story I had written, the things I’d learned writing all those drafts, which would surely help me with what I wrote next, but the kernel of his advice was simple: Throw it out, and move on. Take all you learned writing that and make something new. Afterwards I cried, I fussed, I crashed around — and then I did what he said. What a huge relief to shed those mauled and tortured pages! And how quickly, freed from them, did I begin to write again. That advice made me a writer: I throw out things all the time, still; sometimes things on which I have, as I did with that first novel, spent not only months but years. What’s important, what the attempt taught me about writing, the material I’m exploring, where I want to go next, always survives.”

Barrett’s novels include Lucid Stars (1988), Secret Harmonies (1989), The Middle Kingdom (1991), The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998), and Archangel (2013).

Today is the birthday of columnist, playwright, and director George S[imon] Kaufman (1889) (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He held a variety of sales jobs before he became a writer; then Franklin Pierce Adams featured Kaufman’s work in his column, and on F.P.A.’s recommendation, Kaufman was given a column of his own in 1912, for the Washington Times. He was the drama critic for the New York Times from 1917 to 1930, and found his niche as a playwright during that period. Nearly all of his plays were collaborations. He worked with many of the best writers of the day, including Marc Connelly, Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, and Edna Ferber, and co-wrote many hits, including Dinner at Eight (1932), You Can’t Take It with You (1935), and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). He wrote only one play by himself: 1925’s The Butter and Egg Man, a satire on the theater world. He was an apt satirist, but realized that the genre wasn’t often a big moneymaker; he said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” He wrote musicals for the Marx Brothers, including Animal Crackers (1928) and A Night at the Opera (1935), and was one of the few writers that they approved of and even openly admired.

He loved playing poker and bridge, but was notoriously hard on his bridge partners. He was lean, morose, and a hypochondriac, and he had affairs with some of the most beautiful women on Broadway. His sharp wit also earned him a seat at the Algonquin Round Table, about which he quipped, “Everything I’ve ever said will be credited to Dorothy Parker.” A sample of what he did say: “I like terra firma; the more firma, the less terra.” And, “Epitaph for a dead waiter: God finally caught his eye.” And, “I thought the play was frightful but I saw it under particularly unfortunate circumstances. The curtain was up.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®