Memoirs make a wonderful read. You don’t have to be famous or even outrageous to produce a fascinating book of recollections. Even the humblest persons may have had enough of a roller coaster ride through life for an absorbing account. Of course, being a famous writer can make for spellbinding memoirs—think Gombrowicz, for instance—but most great writers have not bothered. They were probably saving up the good stuff for their fictions. Certainly the most celebrated British memorialists, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, were quite ordinary enough.
I myself never considered writing a memoir—at least until now, when I realize that not having kept a diary disqualifies one as a memorialist. Memory alone is not—to use a Borges word—memorious enough. And yet already a good many years ago, the worthy E. L. Doctorow, then working for a reputable publishing house, took me to lunch and tried to persuade me to write a memoir. It was only one of several suggestions, including a book about mathematics, for which I was about as qualified as piloting a space capsule.
But memoirs, would they have been as impossible? I am not a particularly modest person, but at that time I felt significantly qualified only for turning down such an undertaking. Yet perhaps it should have been a sufficient incentive to be prodded by so distinguished a person as Doctorow, even though he had not yet written Ragtime, to get up from that lunch and start keeping a journal.
Now I do wish I had kept one. To those who still (more rarely) propose my doing so, I reply, “Look at the opportunities I let slip by unrecorded and without which a memoir would be pointless.” Quite a few of them involve writers or future writers. Digging back into early days, I come up with watching a Harvard dance from the sidelines alongside of William Gaddis and hearing him jeer “Vive le sport!” as well as say some other things which I now regret not writing down.
Even more regretfully, I recall a much later lunch with Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite writers, and his then translator, Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, after having written some glowing blurbs for his books. All I remember about that enchanting occasion is how beautiful Borges’s English was. Another time, I arranged for the near-blind Borges and his sighted companion to be put up in a friend’s large apartment free of charge during their New York stay. That time I did not even approach him, not wishing to make him feel obligated to reward me with a meeting.
I spent some time with the French poet Pierre Emmanuel, but all I recall is his love of women with heavy legs and thick ankles. I spent more time with a greater poet, Yves Bonnefoy, when I was writing my Harvard Ph. D. thesis about the prose poem as art form. All I remember from his conversation is his disapproving of my imputing in my thesis deliberate ambiguity to Rimbaud, something Bonnefoy claimed entered French literature only much later, with Paul Valery. I still wonder whether he was right.
There was a brief but stimulating relationship with two important German Swiss writers, Max Frisch and Friedrich Durrenmatt. To the former, I lost a girlfriend he memorialized in Montauk; the latter invited me to come visit him in Switzerland, I don’t know how seriously. I was also friendly and shared a girlfriend with, Hans Egon Holthusen, a then noted German poet, critic, and prose writer, now rather forgotten. Of our many conversations, I remember only two. One, about how I should wear more pointy shoes, the kind he favored. Another about how in attacking other writers I should use such safely unactionable terms as ass or asshole.
In Budapest, I got to know some Hungarian writers, notably the splendid Ferenc Santa, whose terrific short story “Nazis” I translated for my anthology Fourteen for Now. I now recall nothing of our lively conversation, at the end of which he gave me one of his novels that, to my shame, I still haven’t read. A perhaps even greater writer, Gyula Illyes, a poem of whose I had translated in verse, I unfortunately did not get to meet.
I also got to know a good many well-known Americans, as well as a lot of film people, but they would require a whole separate blog entry. Here let me record only my missed memoirs of some famous women. There was, first, the talented and beautiful French Canadian movie star, Genevieve Bujold. She had met me briefly at a film party, and, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a press agent that she would be in New York on such and such an evening on which I was to take her out. It was her imperious command.
Well, I took her to a delightful play by Alan Ayckbourn, which we both enjoyed. During intermission, the conversation somehow turned to feet. She declared that hers were very pretty, and promptly shed a shoe for confirmation. She was right. After the show, we drove around in a cab from restaurant to restaurant, all of which regretted, but their kitchen was closed. Not even my favorite French restaurant relented, though I told them that Mlle. Bujold was in a taxi outside, waiting and hungry.
We ended up in a then popular Hunanese restaurant, where, however, the specialties were not the dishes that she, a vegetarian, ordered. When I delivered her to her hotel, and hoped to get to see more of her than her foot, all I got was a chaste goodnight kiss and the enthusiastic suggestion to come visit her in Hollywood, where I would especially enjoy talking to her brilliant son. He was then eight or nine years old.
I did like the ladies of the ballet. I had had a lovely relationship with June Morris during my Paris Fulbright. However, a poem I wrote about us, she said, would shock her mother. A poem I wrote about and sent to Melissa (“Millie”) Hayden, a superbly down-to-earth broad, she repudiated as incomprehensible. Patricia Wilde was also a platonic friend.
I had a date with the Royal Ballet’s great Lynn Seymour, the recent subject of a rapturous tribute from the New York Times’s chief dance critic. Like Alastair Macaulay, but for a different ballet, I fell under the spell of the magnificent Miss Seymour. I took her to the City Ballet for Balanchine’s dance tribute to England, “Union Jack,” which I thought particularly appropriate. But Lynn was unimpressed, and made some unfavorable comments I wish I had recorded. Of our conversation, I remember only how earthy, tough and profane she was, deliciously so, but not at all the creature I had admired onstage. At that time, I found this disappointing; now I would have delighted in it.
My other, closer nexus, was with one of the greatest and loveliest ballerinas of all time, Suzanne Farrell. She had liked a piece I wrote about her and George Balanchine. And I remember how touched I was when, quite a bit later, I came upon her surrounded in talk with a group of admirers. She promptly left them, coming toward me to warmly greet me. This led to several lunches at the restaurant Santa Fe, near where she then lived. And to fine, unrecorded conversations.
I recall a couple of dates with her. One was to a performance of Horvath’s “Don Juan Returns from the War,” which we both liked. As we walked up Eighth Avenue, she joyously remarked, “This makes me understand something important about Mr. B.” as the ballet people called the glorious George. But what was that something?
Another time I took her to a drama critics’ award party. I had hoped to impress my colleagues with my date, the great and gorgeous Suzanne Farrell. Well, they weren’t in the least impressed, most of them not even knowing who she was. To her credit be it said that she was nowise affected by remaining unrecognized and unadulated. I now think it might even have come as a relief. But what did she say?
One last great lady, this time of opera, and one that I did not date, but had a very long, jolly phone conversation with. The film critics were awarding Diane Keaton for her role in “Annie Hall.” Because Annie is much concerned with wanting to be a singer, I thought the presenter could aptly be Beverly Sills. However, in an utterly charming and modest way, “Pinky” kept declining my most persuasive, affectionate arguments. I wish I had recorded her gracious and amusing objections, as spirited as they were witty. Still, in the end she yielded, and proved the most winning presenter. What were her words?
Selfishly I do recall her telling me, years later, that whenever she got a new issue of New York magazine, she turned first to my column rather than to the worthy music critic’s one. But I was not supposed to tell him that. If he reads this blog, which I very much doubt, he will surely no longer mind. If he does, though, let me say that I usually read his column before checking out mine.