On October 25, 2012, at the riper than ripe age of 104, Jacques Barzun died in San Antonio, where he and his wife had been living for the last 16 years. On the following November 5, at the age of 103, the composer Elliott Carter died in his West Village home. Two veterans, creative in their wheelchairs to the very last, departed within a few days from each other.
I can’t really speak about Carter, since I know only a small part of his music, and do not care for all of that. Moreover, I did not know the man, whereas I knew Barzun, mostly from the Mid-Century Book Society, the second book club he headed with W.H. Auden and Lionel Trilling, the first having been the Readers’ Subscription.
At the Mid-Century, I was associate editor and in charge of the magazine, in which books offered to the members were reviewed by the editors, and later an occasional guest as well. And, pretty regularly, I. Of course, one had to, in both senses of the word, sell these books; but that was neither too hard nor dishonest, given that they were really good books we all liked. Some of them were even suggested by me, e.g., the Ford Madox Ford trilogy, Parade’s End.
It fell to me to edit that illustrious triumvirate for the magazine, a very different task with each writer. Auden, who was jovially insouciant, handed in smart but sloppy stuff that needed a lot of editing, which he readily and gratefully accepted. Trilling was more difficult. Always by telephone, one went over proposed changes, some of which, after some discussion, he accepted, some not.
Barzun, however, one was not allowed to edit. Everything, down to the last comma, had to be left as it was, even where—admittedly seldom—improvement was possible. At the other end of the phone, I could conjure up my interlocutor. He was undoubtedly smiling that frosty smile of his, one part convivial and two parts condescending. Since he was tall, when delivered in person, the smile would literally descend upon you, accompanying an elegant diction that itself had a sort of
smile in it.
His figure and posture were excellent, and he wore his well-tailored clothes with an aura more diplomatic than academic. His accent was upper-class American, without a trace of his French childhood. I always wanted to address him in French, to hear how he would sound in that language, but I lacked the guts to do so.
Even though, with rare exceptions, he spurned what I would call human warmth, his eyes had an encouraging glitter when the conversation was about one art or another—or history, or philosophy—which, in my presence, it almost always was. It could, had I shared his interest, also have been baseball. Often, though, it was about the art of correct and appropriate language, which was one of his passions, and about which, happily, we were of the same opinion.
I had not then and, I’m ashamed to say, even now read most of his books, not really even those I owned. The two-volume Berlioz never even left my bookshelf before I sold it along with a number of my books, all of which I regrettably came to miss.
Barzun was not, like Auden, someone to feel warmly about, but he certainly was one to respect. Thus about his steadily ex cathedra utterances, which one could not help admiring. (Incidentally, it was he who taught me that “could not help but” was redundant.)
He was always, like Auden, reciprocally respectful of me—which Trilling never overtly was, although he several times said he envied my wardrobe. Here is Barzun’s blurb for my book Singularities:
Not because he is violent in expression but
because he feels strongly and thinks clearly
about drama, about art and about conduct,
I think John Simon’s criticism extremely
important and a pleasure to read. And by
the way, who has decreed that violence
in a playwright is splendid and violence
in a critic unforgivable?
So my admiration for Barzun the writer, thinker, critic and wit is boundless, but I wish I could feel the same for the man. During his 15 years at Scribners as a sort of editorial adviser, he invited me to lunch once. He chose a nearby but cheap and inferior restaurant, called I believe Captain Nemo’s. Came the bill and Barzun, who was wealthy in both his own and his wife’s right, practiced division on the addition, making me pay for half. I recall that because it was an odd number, how to divide that final nickel was a momentary problem. This was to me a major disappointment; how right the British are to use “mean” as a synonym for what we call niggardly.
In an essay, Barzun reflected pleasantly about the associate editors at his two book clubs: a certain Raditsa at Readers’ Subscription, and John Simon at Mid-Century, both, to his amusement, born Yugoslavs. (It makes me wonder what has become of the drolly eccentric Raditsa.)
Only two book reviews in my long career was I unable to deliver. One was a biography, The Last Pre-Raphaelite, of Edward Burne-Jones, which I read in galley form but waited for the finished book, which included all-important reproductions of his paintings demanding some comment. But by the time this finally arrived, I had forgotten much of what I wanted to say about the text.
The other book was Michael Murray’s Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind, which comprises, with comments, profuse and lengthy extracts from his writings. I tend to run penciled lines in the margins along the passages I wish to quote; here, however, the lines were near-ubiquitous, and I didn’t know where to draw the line. I struggled unsuccessfully with triage, but finally gave up in despair.
The term “polygrapher” usually denotes someone who has written too much, a more or less glorified hack. Barzun’s output—books, contributions to books, independent essays, translations—was all, however copious, of the highest quality, so that the term does not really apply. The authorial portrait of a mind boggles a reader’s mind.
So what I decided to do here is to address only Murray’s last chapter, “Late Years.” This deals with, among others, the very hefty From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, from 1500 to the Present, published in 2000, when Barzun was 92, and covering, I believe (I have never actually seen the book), some 700 pages. It features a major statement of Barzun’s firm belief that our culture has become decadent and is in unarrestable decline, but that, in an as yet unforeseeable future, a different, fresh culture would arise.
A very different Barzun from the one I knew emerges, more modest and adaptable. Concerning From Dawn, he writes his editor, “I want every opportunity to improve my work through the remarks of choice readers. And I mean comments of every sort: clumsy wording, too much on one topic, risky generality about our own time, dull stuff—the lot.”
In a 2004 letter to John Lukacs, he writes, “If I did let go . . . I would exceed all bounds and be put down as a mad professor, fit only to associate with helpless students. . . . I long ago learned to curb the spontaneous Ciceronian invective I might enjoy discharging from time to time.” There are gems in these late letters, as, for instance, when he lectures the language guru William Safire about the difference between a ship that is moored, and one that is merely docked. Heaven only knows how he came by such nautical intelligence.
There are charming aperçus. “We live longer, it is true, but often without much enjoyment of old age.” Or: “One should not live to so advanced an age. One tends to become indifferent about—manifestations of good and evil in the world, for example, or the obligations . . . incurred when people ask something of one.” Or take this observation: “I think that in the 19th century and much of the 20th it was quite normal for gentlemen . . . not to talk about the ladies they took an interest in, epistolary or amorous or even marital as distinct from amorous. I get the impression, from letters and biographies, that to discuss or even mention a new ‘interest’ would be indelicate, for if precisely specified it could sound egotistical, even boastful, and if left vague, would lead to regrettable speculation.” How wonderful from a man 94 years old.
“I keep thinking that I’ve been enormously lucky,” he writes, and avers that he has no regrets about his life choices, even though becoming an academic was “a kind of Why not? Instead of a Yes, by all means.”
He is certainly right about our dumbed-down age, and that a dégringolade (a French word signifying a catastrophic downward hurtling) is taking place. May he also be right about the better future, which, to be sure, not even a child just born and living to be 104 will necessarily live to see. But hope and striving for it are not small potatoes either, and in this disciple of William James and Bernard Shaw they are always there.