The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

House by Billy Collins, from The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems. © Random House. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I lie in a bedroom of a house
that was built in 1862, we were told—
the two windows still facing east
into the bright daily reveille of the sun.

The early birds are chirping,
and I think of those who have slept here before,
the family we bought the house from—
the five Critchlows—

and the engineer they told us about
who lived here alone before them,
the one who built onto the back
of the house a large glassy room with wood beams.

I have an old photograph of the house
in black and white, a few small trees,
and a curved dirt driveway,
but I do not know who lived here then.

So I go back to the Civil War
and to the farmer who built the house
and the rough stone walls
that encompass the house and run up into the woods,

he who mounted his thin wife in this room,
while the war raged to the south,
with the strength of a dairyman
or with the tenderness of a dairyman

or with both, alternating back and forth
so as to give his wife much pleasure
and to call down a son to earth
to take over the cows and the farm

when he no longer had the strength
after all the days and nights of toil and prayer—
the sun breaking over the same horizon
into these same windows,

lighting the same bed-space where I lie
having nothing to farm, and no son,
the dead farmer and his dead wife for company,
feeling better and worse by turns.


It’s the birthday of novelist François Mauriac (books by this author), born in Bordeaux, France (1885). During his lifetime, he was considered one of France’s greatest novelists, and he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1952. But he was staunchly Catholic in an era when Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were bringing existential philosophy to French culture — he was too conservative for progressives, but not Catholic enough for the Catholic establishment. Mauriac also had a tendency to get in public fights with other well-known writers.

His first major public dispute was with Albert Camus in the aftermath of World War II. Camus wrote for Combat, a newspaper of the French Resistance, and he was of the firm opinion that justice was the most important priority for France, and that every Nazi collaborator should be ferreted out and given a harsh punishment. Although Mauriac was also a member of the Resistance, he wrote for a conservative newspaper, Le Figaro, and in his column he took issue with Camus, arguing that France should focus on unity, not on punishing collaborators. A few months after their public attacks on each other, a French writer named Robert Brasillach was sentenced to death for his role as a collaborator, although his collaboration had been theoretical — he supported Nazi Germany and was anti-Semitic, but he hadn’t actually done anything beyond publicize his views. Mauriac went to Brasillach’s defense — he totally disagreed with Brasillach’s views, but he didn’t think he should actually be executed for them. Mauriac organized a petition to ask Charles de Gaulle to pardon Brasillach, and he got a lot of big names on his list, including Paul Valéry, Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, and Colette. At the last minute, Camus signed it as well, but it didn’t do any good, and Brasillach was executed. Camus, for his part, had a total change of heart and decided that there was never an excuse to justify execution. Several years later, he gave a speech and said, “I have come to recognize for myself and now publicly that regarding the fundamental issue, and on the specific point of our dispute, Mr. François Mauriac was right and I was in the wrong.”

In 1949, after Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, Mauriac lashed out against it, suggesting that it be investigated as pornography. It probably didn’t help that 10 years earlier, Beauvoir’s longtime lover Jean-Paul Sartre had written an essay called “François Mauriac and Freedom,” in which he concluded: “Novels are written by men and for men. In the eyes of God, Who cuts through appearances and goes beyond them, there is no novel, no art, for art thrives on appearances. God is not an artist. Neither is M. Mauriac.”

Mauriac and best-selling novelist Roger Peyrefitte also engaged in a very public dispute. It started when Mauriac wrote a letter about the recently deceased gay writer Jean Cocteau, whom he called a “tragic personality” because he was missing out on “that reassuring universe where a woman lays her hand on our forehead with the same gesture as our mother, and where children gather around us till the end.” Peyrefitte, who was open about his own gay relationships, was annoyed by Mauriac’s comments. Then Mauriac published another letter saying he was disgusted by a film being made out of one of Peyrefitte’s novels, about homoerotic feelings between 12-year-old boys — Mauriac said that it was “a cauldron from which their souls will not emerge unscathed.” That set Peyrefitte over the edge, and he published a vicious letter about Mauriac — not only did he call him homophobic, but he also suggested that Mauriac was a closeted gay man who had been in love with Jean Cocteau. The fight became the celebrity gossip of France, dividing prominent figures as they sided with one or the other.

François Mauriac continued publishing novels until his death in 1970 at the age of 84. He said: “Every novelist ought to invent his own technique, that is the fact of the matter. Every novel worthy of the name is like another planet, whether large or small, which has its own laws just as it has its own flora and fauna.”

And, “If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads.”


It’s the birthday of the man who founded the YMCA, Sir George Williams, born on a farm in Somerset, England, on this day in 1821. Growing up, he said he was “a careless, thoughtless, godless, swearing young fellow.” He went off to London and got a job in a draper’s shop, where he toiled away in sweatshop-like working conditions along with a bunch of other young men. He became a devoted Christian. He wanted his fellow laborers to have a place to congregate outside of work — a place where they wouldn’t be led into the temptation of sin, a place where they could go to develop a “healthy spirit, mind, and body,” he said. And so he created the Young Men’s Christian Association in London in June 1844, when he was just 22 years old. In many places, it’s now called “the Y,” and today it has 45 million members around the world.


It’s the birthday of the longest-serving First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, born in New York City (1884) who said, “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.” She began a secret courtship with her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During World War I, she went off to Europe and visited wounded and shell-shocked soldiers in hospitals there. Later, during her husband’s presidency, she campaigned hard on civil rights issues — not a universally popular thing in the 1930s and 1940s.

After FDR died in 1945, she moved from the White House to Hyde Park, New York, and taught International Relations at Brandeis University. As anti-communist witch-hunting began to sweep the U.S., she stuck up for freedom of association in a way that few Americans were brave or bold enough to do. She chided Hollywood producers for being so “chicken-hearted about speaking up for the freedom of their industry.” She said that the “American public is capable of doing its own censoring” and that “the judge who decides whether what [the film industry] does is good or bad is the man or woman who attends the movies.”

She said that the Un-American Activities Committee was creating the atmosphere of a police state in America, “where people close doors before they state what they think or look over their shoulders apprehensively before they express an opinion.”

In 1947, a couple years before the McCarthy Era had reached full swing, she announced, “The Un-American Activities Committee seems to me to be better for a police state than for the USA.”

She once said, “We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk.”

And, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”


It was on this day in 1962 that Pope John XXIII convened the first session of the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, with the goal of bringing the church up to date with the modern world. More than 3,000 delegates attended, including many of the Catholic bishops from around the world, theologians, and other church officials.

As a result of Vatican II, Catholics were allowed to pray with Protestants and attend weddings and funerals in Protestant churches; priests were encouraged to perform mass facing the congregation, rather than facing the altar; and priests were allowed to perform mass in languages other than Latin, so that parishioners could finally understand what was being said throughout the service.


The film To Have and Have Not premiered on this day in 1944. It was based on the novel To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway, which was a hard novel for Hemingway to write, and took him about four years. He had been accused of being politically apathetic, so in this novel he tried to engage with the politics of Cuba and Key West, but the result was generally panned by critics. Philip Rahv of the Partisan Review summed it up: “In transcending his political indifference, he has not, however, at the same time transcended his political ignorance.” Hemingway published the novel in 1937, and in 1939, he sold the film, radio and television rights for $10,000.

The film To Have and Have Not opened on this day at the Hollywood Theater in Manhattan for an exclusive showing, and it grossed $46,200 in its first week at that one theater, and went on to be a blockbuster. It was billed as “Ernest Hemingway’s (books by this authorTo Have and Have Not,” but in reality it was based very loosely on the novel. A man named Jules Furthman wrote the screenplay, but the government objected to it because it portrayed Cuba in an unflattering way, and in those days—the Batista regime—the U.S. and Cuba were allies. So Warner Brothers told the film’s director that the film would have to be cancelled, even though production had already started.

So the director took it to his friend William Faulkner, (books by this author) a screenwriter on the Warner Brothers payroll. Faulkner took the script and rewrote it, changing the setting to Martinique, imagining a new political conflict, combining characters, dropping others, and rewriting dialogue. But since it had attracted the government’s notice, all the changes to the script had to be sent to the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information. Since they were on a tight recording schedule, Faulkner was writing each scene about three days before it was shot, and he helped make changes even during filming.

To Have and Have Not is celebrated as a collaboration between two Nobel Prize winners, although Hemingway and Faulkner did not actually interact during the process of making the film, and apparently Faulkner never mentioned Hemingway at all. And neither one of them wrote the most famous line in the film: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” It was improvised on the spot by the director as a screen test for Lauren Bacall, and she did so well that Faulkner wrote it into the screenplay.

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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Writing

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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