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.


  1. Excellent, giving Hellman the business in your letter of apology!

  2. The Gutting of Commie Gal

    With a theory can I barge in,
    Double-edged means double margin?
    In center a single "Sorry" park,
    More cutting than the sword of Arc?
    Into the chill such irony cram it,
    Daring a tail from Lil-op Hammett?

  3. Albert Guerard went on to academic fame at Stanford, helping to turn "the Farm" into "the Harvard of the West".

  4. Harvard was in its golden years when Simon was there. Kennedy, Mailer, Bly, Plimpton, Wilber, Ashbery, Lowell. Updike was in there somewhere. Ted Williams was playing for the Red Sox. The leaves in Fall.Tons of hot chicks. I'll bet that was special.

  5. Hellman vs. McCarthy
    Stalinist vs. Trotskyite
    John Simon mimicked at 19:50

  6. Speaking of show biz, here's a a brief but dazzling clip from 'The Man Who Fell to Earth', featuring Bernie Casey and Claudia Jennings:

  7. Even more show biz!

    Old Glenda Jackson.

    Young Glenda Jackson.

    1. I love Jackson. Such a talent.

    2. The current THREE TALL WOMEN seems a success. I hope that success is justified. But it’s a pity we don’t have John Simon’s voice on the matter. How often he swept away all the ballyhoo with an objective eye and acidic pen to separate the wheat from the chaff for us. Perhaps this THREE TALL WOMEN production was a real stinkeroo!

    3. Simon was doing a theater review show on somewhere. There used to be some episodes on YouTube but I can't find them now. He wasn't a huge Albee fan.

      YouTube has some footage of rehearsals for "Tall" and to be honest it doesn't look too promising. A lot of ham acting going on. The hamminess may go away on stage, though. The camera isn't kind towards stage acting.

      I saw that Laurie Metcalf is in the new version of "Tall." She was terrific in "Lady Bird."

    4. Over the years Simon applauded Laurie Metcalf’s theatre work. But when other critics cheered her Best Actress Tony in A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2, he panned her performance. Bucking the trend is a key Simon strength. In his critique he offered reasons why an actress he admired had faltered. I’m happy to hear of Metcalf’s success in LADY BIRD. She is, of course, a charter member of Steppenwolf Theatre where she remains an ensemble member. But to you, me, the world, except John Simon, she will always be “Jackie Harris.”

    5. Very true. Simon is the ultimate Devil's advocate. I can't stand Rosanne. How they got two talents like Goodman and Metcalf is beyond me.

      Wait, they paid them a lot of money, I forgot.

  8. To piggyback on the show biz tributary, here's the films listed in a volume titled 'The Best Films You've Never Seen' --- title of film is followed by director, then followed by the director who really likes the film:

    After dark, my sweet /[James Foley, director] Austin Chick --

    L'ange /[Patrick Boksnowski, director] The brothers Quay --

    Arcane sorcerer /[Pupi Avati, director] Guillermo del Toro --

    The beaver trilogy /[Trent Harris, director] Phil Lord --

    Blume in love /[Paul Mazursky, director] Neil LaBute --

    Boom! /[Joseph Losey, director] John Waters --

    Breaking away /[Peter Yates, director] Richard Curtis --

    Can't stop the music /[Nancy Walker, director] Jonathan Levine --

    The chase /[Arthur Ripley, director] Guy Maddin --

    Eureka /[Nicolas Roeg, director] Danny Boyle --

    F for fake /[Orson Welles, director] Henry Jaglom --

    Fearless /[Peter Weir, director] Richard Kelly --

    The homecoming /[Peter Hall, director] Atom Egoyan --

    The honeymoon killers /[Leonard Kastle, director] Todd Solondz --

    The iceman cometh /[John Frankenheier, director] Arthur Hiller --

    Institute Benjamenta /[Stephen and Timothy Quay, directors] Michael Polish --

    ivansxtc /[Bernard Rose, director] Joe Swanberg --

    Joe versus the volcano /[John Patrick Stanley, director] Jay Duplass --

    Le joli mai /[Chris Marker, director] Steve James --

    Killer klowns from outer space /[Stephen Chiodo, director] Brian Herzlinger --

    A man for all seasons /[Fred Zinnemann, director] Kevin Smith --

    Murder by contract /[Irving Lerner, director] Antonio Campos --

    Le samouraï /[Jean-Pierre Melville, director] John Woo --

    Some came running /[Vincente Minnelli, director] Richard Linklater --

    The super cops /[Gordon Parks, director] Edgar Wright --

    Sweet charity /[Bob Fosse, director] Bill Condon --

    The swimmer /[Frank Perry, director] Alex Proyas --

    10 Rillington Place /[Richard Fleischer, director] Sean Durkin --

    The trial /[Orson Welles, director] Frank Oz --

    Trouble in paradise /[Ernst Lubitsch, director] Peter Bogdanovich --

    Twin peaks: fire walk with me /[David Lynch, director] John Dahl --

    Ugetsu /[Kenji Mizoguchi, director] Kimberly Peirce --

    Under the volcano /[John Huston, director] Rian Johnson --

    Who'll stop the rain /[Karel Reisz, director] John McNaughton --

    WR: mysteries of the organism /[Dušan Makavejev, director] Alex Gibney

    1. Thanks for the list. I’ve seen and enjoyed a number of these films and own one: THE ICEMAN COMETH with Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Fredric March and a very young Jeff Bridges. I would add to the list RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY by Sam Peckinpah. THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS by Bob Rafelson. Perhaps MIKEY AND NICKY by Elaine May but only in the final version approved by May.

    2. Most of these are pretty good movies. And a few of them were seen by a good number of people. (Twin Peaks, Blume in Love, Breaking Away, etc) Ugetsu is one of the greatest movies ever.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Amazon Prime streaming has two of the listed films free to watch for subscribers: 'Can't Stop the Music' and 'Institute Benjamenta'. (The latter sounds like my kinda flick: "Jakob enrolls at the Institute, and becomes gradually embroiled in the world of the enigmatic siblings who run the school: the sadistic Johannes Benjamenta and his sorrowful sister Lisa.") Films on the list I've long wanted to see are 'ivansxtc' and 'The Super Cops', the second of which I remember watching on CBS-TV in the 1970s. I've tried to watch Nicolas Roeg's 'Eureka', I couldn't penetrate it, but I want to give it another try.

    5. I've been reading the novel on which the film 'Institute Benjamenta' is based: 'Jakob von Gunten' by Robert Walser. It's a fascinating study of a submissive mind, of someone who needs to submit to a stronger will yet at the same time retains a hidden pride that expresses itself in passive-aggression, subversion, disloyalty, etc. Although Jakob is a submissive man, he seems also to be a representative of mass man.

    6. Thanks for the tip. When Walser showed up some years back as a "NYRB book," I figured he might be worth reading. Until then he was just a name I knew little about.

    7. Yes, 'Jakob von Gunten' is a great study of a submissive spirit. I'm also reading the bio of Jann Wenner, 'Sticky Fingers' by Joe Hagan, which is a great study of a dominant spirit!

  9. Here's a harrowing account of school daze by Josefine Nauckhoff, who translated Nietzsche's 'The Gay Science' for the 'Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy' series:

  10. Partial transcript of my favorite scene from the film 'To Die For'. The conference speaker is played by George Segal, Suzanne Stone by Nicole Kidman:

    Conference Speaker (CS): The point is, Suzanne, if you want it bad enough, you'll get it. But you gotta really want it. You gotta be able to do things ordinary people wouldn't do. You see what I'm saying?.... Anyway, when I was at the network, there was this gal from some ten-watt station in the Midwest where she did the weather. The weather. So she comes up to New York in her best Donna Karan dress-for-success knockoff, blonde hair all done up in a French twist, and an audition tape in her imitation leather briefcase--along with a letter of introduction from her station manager, which says, "Please give your most serious consideration to the bearer of this letter, Miss So-and-So, who is of moderate intelligence, who has some experience in broadcasting, and, more importantly, who can suck your cock until your eyes pop out." And you know who that gal is today?

    Suzanne Stone (SS): Who?

    (He whispers a name to her.)

    SS: Is that true?

    CS: It's true. And here comes the best part. About ten years ago, I'm at some TV conference somewhere, and I run into that station manager, and I congratulate him on his letter writing skills. And he doesn't know what I'm talking about.

    SS: Why doesn't he?

    CS: Because, sweetheart, he didn't write the letter.

    SS: Oh… Who did?

    CS: She did. She wrote it herself.

    SS: Ohhh.... Oh, I see…

  11. EXTRA, EXTRA! Moses Farrow on life under Mia's roof, will blow your mind! EXTRA, EXTRA!

    1. I read it. I believe him. The Woodman is super cool.

      Never believed the BS.

  12. Thanks U.K. --- I've been an avid student of the Woody-Mia imbroglio for decades, and that Moses Farrow piece is probably the best piece of writing I've seen on the subject. What he says jibes with observations Camille Paglia has made on the case over the years.

    1. Nooch, now they got my boy Morgan Freeman. Just heard today. All of my movie heroes are going down.(no pun intended)

    2. Morgan Freeman needs to have an adopted son write as eloquent a defense of him as Moses Farrow wrote for the Wood-man!

    3. True story: My wife is a loan underwriter and she did a mortgage loan for Freeman's son. He lives in South Carolina. She had to talk to him several times on the phone, and she said he was a terrific guy. Very nice and polite.

    4. How our children turn out is a testament to our character. That's why I was always scared to have any!

  13. RIP Philip Roth
    Required reading:

  14. Wow, I heard it here first, thank you for the info. I read somewhere Roth ghosted Mia Farrow's memoir 'What Falls Away'.

    Confessions of an 12-step English major:

  15. Philip on Philip:
    “To become a celebrity is to become a brand name. There is Ivory soap, Rice Krispies, and Philip Roth. Ivory is the soap that floats; Rice Krispies the breakfast cereal that goes snap-crackle-pop; Philip Roth is the Jew who masturbates with a piece of liver.”