Saturday, April 21, 2018


My time as a graduate student in Comparative Literature was as good as can be, and a pleasure to recall. Who would have thought that it would be this enjoyable?

Since I could no longer stay in one of the undergraduate houses, I had to look for an off-campus domicile. That is how I lucked out by letting a room from the Streeters. He taught history of astronomy at Harvard; I can’t remember what her profession was if she had one. They were both delightful persons, and I hope I was as congenial to them as they were to me.

Mr. Streeter, though agreeable, was somewhat distant; the wife was a perfect charmer. They also had two dogs of which I became quite fond; both were named for famous astronomers. The brown, medium-sized poodle was called Tycho (pronounced like Ti Cobb without the Bs) for the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. An amiable dog but surpassed in appeal by the basset hound Reggie, named  for Regiomontanus, the nickname of the fifteenth-century German mathematician and astronomer Johann Mueller. I very much doubt that his introduction of algebra and trigonometry to Germany could have made him as much fun as Reggie,

Reggie had a will of his own, but wasn’t too obstinate and a joy to watch as he waddled across the landscape. I have always liked animals, especially cats, but none more than this varicolored, sausage-shaped creature, amusing in ways that I cannot individually recall.

Mrs. Streeter was a prototypical New England lady, tall, blond, winning, with a face not quite beautiful but somehow open and welcoming. On top of which, she possessed a large collection of Noel Coward recordings, rare at that time, which I played with inexhaustible relish. I can’t recall if I previously had much of a sense of Coward, but these enabled me to conduct a Coward program, “Tonight at 9:30,” over Radio Harvard and Radcliffe.

Already as an undergrad I had had two excellent tutors. One was Albert Guerard, who was wonderfully permissive. He taught a course in Conrad, Gide, and one other novelist (I forget who), which, however, I did not take. Initially, he said I didn’t need his tutorial, having proved myself with one on Edmund Spenser. But, being a Francophile, I wanted Gide, saying I’ve had “The Faerie Queen,” and now wanted the Queen of the Fairies.

But Guerard left Harvard, and I needed a new tutor, for which I chose Hyder Rollins, the editor of several anonymous Renaissance song collections. He protested that nobody before had wanted a tutorial with him, that he did not know how to administer it, and that I seemed capable enough to tutor myself.  He ramained one of my favorite professors.

Licing with the Streeters, I was allowed to have girlfriends stay with me overnight. I had two of them. One was Marietta, born in Austria, and a fellow grad student in Comp Lit. She had already been the favorite student of my great German professor, Karl Vietor, who liked me and approved my involvement with her. During my relatively brief but depressing stint in the Post-World-War-Two Air  Force. Professor Vietor wrote me encouraging letters and sent me German books I asked for, notably the poems of Max Dauthendey. When I got out of uniform and back to Harvard, he was on his deathbed in hospital, but still sent me messages to get down to writing my doctoral thesis without further delay. That I did not visit him during his final illnessi still saddens me.

My other girlfriend, for alternate weekends, was Jane: Floridian, government student, and thoroghly American. Whereas Marietta had a slightly too short nose. which she explained as a car door once slammed on it. Jane had a curvature of the spine, which she managed to minimize with admirable posture. Mrs. Streeter liked both girls, but preferred Marietta because of her European background,

Two other profs were important to me. One was the head of the French Department, Jean Seznec, admirable and famous, but rather cold. In his seminar on Flaubert, he was somehow distant, but when I read aloud my term paper in which I compared something (I can’t remember what) to ham sandwiches sold on trains that were a thin slice of meat surrounded by thick, boring bread, he sat up and stopped playing with his key chain. We had one embarrassing moment when I came to the door of his on-campus suite, and, upon knocking, misheard his request to wait and came upon him changing his trousers. Momentarily very annoyed, he forgave me.

I recall his standing before the blackboard and trying to remember how to spell the name of the great French actress Valentine Tessier. He wrote out both Tessier and Teissier, and for a while couldn’t decide. I figured that if the great had such problems I could have them too. When the Flaubert seminar was over, he offered me a stay at  Emory University, where some newly discovered Flaubert letters needed to be edited for a prestigious academic publication. I declined, preferring to write an essay on Flaubert’s women. Seznec felt rebuffed, but forgave that as well..

Most important to me, by his being the head of the Comp Lit Department, was Harry Levin, a brilliant but touchy teacher and writer. I was the sectionman in his popular course on Proust, Mann and Joyce, and all was well until Lillian Hellman, visiting lecturer, made trouble, She had asked for some graduate student to translate for her  passages of Anouilh’s play on Joan of Arc, headed for Broadway,so as to get a sense of how various characters talked. She was paying a measly hundred dollars, but one was to be allowed to sit in on rehearsals.

When I handed in fifty double-spaced pages, she would pay only fifty bucks, because she had expected that many pages in single-space. When I protested in a phone call, she complained to Harry Levin. He threatened to throw me out of Comp Lit, but we finally settled on my writing a letter of apology. I did, but in a double-edged way, which Levin vetted but let pass, although he must have recognized the irony.
                                                                                                                                                          Eventually I got my Masters’ and PhD, and so landed a job with the Mid-Century Book Society and its editors, Auden, Barzun and Trilling. But that is another story, about which I have written elsewhere.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Names, Again

Here I am again with a blog post on names, names that I find variously interesting. Take, for example, Dove. It is the name of a very good chocolate and a very good soap, and a worthy but not so great American painter, Arthur G. Dove, described by one authority as “a curious and lonely genius.”

The gentle white dove is a symbol of peace, promulgated by both the Russian communists and Picasso, but it has latterly lost much of its currency. It tends to suggest the motley denizens of public places as pigeons, encumbering our progress and known derogatorily as rats with wings. Differently spelled, it served the dependable actor Walter Pidgeon, now mostly  remembered as acting opposite Greer Garson. Can the name  have influenced Pidgeon’s personality?

I’d like to think that the TV cooking show person Rachael Ray owes her annoying personality in part to her parents’ misspelling her given name as Rachael, which is nonsense. It is clearly derived by faulty analogy from Michael, and would make sense only if the name were Richael. Both names derive from the Hebrew, with Michael meaning “godlike” and Rachel “like a ewe,” i.e., gentle, which Ms. Ray certainly isn’t.

In saddling one with a wrong or misspelled given name, parents are manifestly to blame. But if a Rachael knew what is right, she could easily change her name legally, or simply by usage. In any case, my concern here is for what influence, if any, names have on personality.

Take my own name, John Simon, which long ago comprised a John Simon the Bad, which was me, and a John Simon in publishing, who was known as John Simon the Good, although people who worked with him found him otherwise. There were further John Simons: a Yale Law professor, a Cornell Romance Languages professor, and the so-called John Simon the Groovy, in charge of popular music at Columbia Records.

To distinguish me from the others, and because so many people in America have triple names, my father invented John Ivan Simon for me, although Ivan is John in some languages and so, strictly speaking, redundant. Still, Ivan stuck to me in some formal use, making me on my Harvard doctoral diploma Johannes Johannes, and still causing a sassy friend, Dona Vaughn, to call me John John, as if I were a Kennedy. Elsewhere I remain John I. Simon, which I am not fond of.

I am concerned here with names that have a single obvious meaning and thereby conceivably influence their bearer. I am not sure what Good Luck Jonathan does for a certain African potentate, but I wonder how one addresses him. If you are being formal, he is Mr. Jonathan, although that should be familiar, whereas Good Luck, sounds somehow ironic and disrespectful, if not downright condescending. Luckily, I am not likely to meet the gentleman.

Now take the name of Bermuda’s Public Service Superintendant (is that Chief of Police?), which is Sean Field-Lament. Does he lament the duties that come with his field? Maybe so, but does he need to inform us of it? Or is he called this only when things are going badly? On the rarer occasions, when they are going well, does he become Sean Field-Jubilation? Either way, doesn’t one feel ridiculous addressing him so? Better not have police problems when one is in Bermuda.

Consider next the Korean American playwright Young Jean Lee, now middle-aged. But how will one address her when she is, say, eighty? You will be accused of mocking or patronizing her what with that Young. To be sure, the word may have a different meaning in Korean, but here is where she lives and works. Or would she switch to Old Jean. But then to call her Good Old Jean would seem from nonintimates rather presumptuous.

And what about a man recently appointed by Trump to a high office and surnamed Pecker? With pecker a well-known synonym for penis, how did this man fare in school and later? Was he not made galling fun of, yet refuse, out of pride, to change his name to, for instance, Packer. And how about our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions? Every time I see his name in a headline, I first think it about some kind of, perhaps constructive, meetings, or even of Shakespeare’s “sessions of sweet silent thought,”until my mind readjusts itself to Jeff Sessions, who is neither sweet nor silent, though he may have some sort of thoughts when not recusing himself.

To think that there is among politicians today a man named Flake, and a rare good one at that, who must have endured no little razzing for a name synonymous with oddball. Unless voters in his state favor oddballs, provided they are not in the White House.

I come now to the most arrogant assumption of a surname these days by the man who calls himself smugly and smarmily John Legend. It is meant to make him out a living legend who combines the self-serving with the slimily ingratiating. Even his face seems shined with some sort of oil or ointment to enable his slithering into hearts and minds. I would suspect that, not knowing what God might look like, he makes do with the second-best, Christlike.

In that mode. Legend managed to get himself cast in the eponymous lead of NBC’s revival of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” to bask in what has been watched by some 9.4 million viewers establishing him both as a Christ figure and as a superstar. Yet the New York Times review, though on the whole favorable and conceding the ability of Legend to sing, questioned his acting. It is in movies like the dismal Oscar winner“La La Land” that he properly belonged, contributing to his, if not quite heavenly, Hollywood aura. Legend is clearly a case of the proverbial cobbler illicitly ascending beyond footgear, to the delight of his benighted fans.

Sometimes a name works in a bilingual, or if you prefer macaronic, way, as in the case of the Austrian tennis ace Dominic Thiem, pronounced ”team,” which in English endows him with a kind of supernatural plurality. In German, it takes a Mannschaft to make a team, but the implication probably works in Austria too.

Many German Jewish ssurnames are flattering borrowings from nature in their meanings. Thus, for example, Rosenbaum (rose tree), Gruenberg (green mountain), Strauss (bouquet), or just as auspiciously Freund (friend) or Suesskind (sweet child). These names were apparently given mockingly by German border authorities to Jewish immigrants from Eastern European countries with grating foreign names. Some, with more pronounceable monikers like Horowitz, managed to elude this enforced baptism.

At times it is a thing or condition that gets a favorably meaningful name. I think of what the Italian calls admiringly “odor di femina,” scent of a woman. This does not refer to perfume, but flatteringly to some less glamorous emanation from, let’s say, the armpit, that womanizers, however, value and are drawn to. It was the title of a not especially distinguished film starring the great Vittorio Gassman as some sort of Don Juan. A variation of that term was sported by that titan of advertising,, Jerry Della Femina, which, however, may not have anything to do with a womanly odor.

But then many names have a meaning quite irrelevant to their bearer. Thus the lovely French actress Francoise Fabian was surely no bean-grower or member of the Fabian Society And thus too our numerous surnames based on professions, e.g.,  Farmer, Miller, Porter and the like do not designate current occupations. So I too may escape what my name might betoken, a simple Simon. At any rate, that is what Simon sez.