by Mitch Levenberg
After sitting down to breakfast one morning, I happened to notice Alfred Kazin’s obituary in The New York Times. It had been several years since I had taken a course with Kazin, at the CUNY Graduate Center directly across from the NY Public Library where he wrote On Native Grounds, his groundbreaking book on American Literature.
I didn’t know anything about Alfred Kazin when I first entered the graduate program at CUNY and signed up for his course-Poe, Hawthorne and Melville. I didn’t sign up because of him but because I happened to love those three writers. Then it was only after registering that I discovered his reputation for being irascible, cranky, and often dismissive of all those cloyingly sycophantic graduate students who made sure to cross his path. Now I was really worried, but what I soon learned was that was just the thing I would love about him, that and his kind of raw, visceral, passionate love of literature. And the way he talked about writers, like he knew them personally, like he hung out with them at bars or dinner parties or the docks or even at funerals,made me want to hang out with them too.
Kazin, having recently suffered a coronary, was told by his doctor to get more exercise so every time I went to his office, he asked if I wouldn’t mind taking a walk with him, not around Bryant Park which was right across the street or next door to see the great reading room of the NY public library or downtown near the harbor where Melville and Hawthorne might have met for coffee, but just a nice, casual walk around the 12th floor of the Graduate Center.
Mostly, we walked in silence, the two of us hunched over like two old Jews considering some important question in the Talmud. For all the world it looked as if I were accompanying him rather than we were accompanying each other. Some of my friends who stood and watched us, quite amused, as we circled the 12th floor, would tease me about us looking like father and son-our bodies hunched over at similar angles, our legs moving slowly and methodically at the same pace.
I felt more like I was walking with an old cranky uncle, with that old cranky uncle sense of humor only a young cranky nephew could love.
One time we were on maybe our second or third lap around the 12th floor when we saw two men in front of us and Kazin said to me, “Do you notice how one of them has hair where the other one doesn’t and the other one has no hair where the other one does?” “Yes,” I said somewhat nervously but with a sense of amazement in my voice. “My God, that’s right,” I said. I didn’t even notice that.” But who noticed that? I thought to myself but the great Alfred Kazin.
Now it had been more than 10 years since I had last seen or talked to him, and then, suddenly, there was his obituary.
If only we had kept in touch, I thought, if we had become friends, if we went to each other’s house once in a while for dinner or perhaps met occasionally at some outdoor cafe or concert or poetry reading or something like then most likely I would have known or someone would have told me he died before I had to read about it in the paper. Maybe I would have gone to his funeral and even said something, a story or anecdote having to do with just me and him, maybe even something about our walks together on the 12th floor of the CUNY Graduate Center or even the time he looked me right in my face and said, “You interest me. ”
I interested him? I mean, how was that even possible? Could it be, I thought, it because I wasn’t your typical sycophantic graduate student but someone who may have reminded him, somehow, incomprehensibly, of his younger self, writing scholarly primitive papers and using carefully selected metaphors and similes which usually showed a naive yet genuine excitement about the author and or the novel rather than making up some pretentious half baked literary theory and obfuscating language to say something stupid and passionless for the express purpose of sounding smart?
I have to admit though I wasn’t totally guiltless. After all, I loved vagueness. I lived my life through ellipses, those miraculous dots that like some verbal contract assured my listeners that something brilliant was sure to follow, but I was just too lazy to say it. Or you know, why say it when you can have other people think or say it for you. Still, no matter how hard I tried I could not speak like those others whose words at the end of a sentence were more obscure than at the beginning and whenever I tried to I usually ended up with that unbearable nausea like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, watching Nazis marching to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
It is true that Alfred Kazin and I never really did much of anything together except take those circular walks around the 12th floor. Once, by accident, we did have lunch together up in the Dining Commons of the CUNY Graduate Center. We barely said anything to each other because I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t make me sound ignorant, so instead I watched him eat, not mimicking but only watching so that I never finished my lunch, prompting him to say, “What’s wrong? You didn’t like the soup?”
I never forgot those words and never again would I go near graduate school soup because I blamed it always for making me speechless and dumb. Not that it burned my tongue or anything, but it might as well have.
Years later, long after I dropped out of graduate school and not seeing Kazin at all anymore, I called him up once to ask if he would write me a letter of recommendation for a writing contest I was entering. Despite the passage of time, he remembered me fondly and said he would be glad to write the letter. Then he asked me to come over to his house for dinner sometime with my wife, and I immediately thought of the soup I never ate. That’s all I need, I thought. To sit there like a dummy again with a hot steaming bowl of soup in front of me, unable to utter anything intelligible. Though I had been eating soup off and on ever since that day up in the dining commons, I still had not yet eaten it with Alfred Kazin and couldn’t be sure I ever would. But it was that kind of thing, like going over to his house for dinner, maybe even just that one time, that might have prompted someone, perhaps his wife, to let me know he died so I wouldn’t have to learn about it from an obituary page in the New York Times.
I remember a time when it wasn’t a matter of Alfred Kazin liking me or not me but of him not really knowing who I was. The first time he handed back a set of papers and came to mine, he said, “Where is Mr. Leavenworth? Is Mr. Leavenworth here?”
“Levenberg?” I asked, thinking maybe there was a Mr. Leavenworth, my Doppleganger perhaps, sitting behind me. “Yes, yes,” he said, looking at my paper again, Levenberg. Mitchell Levenberg. Is that you?” he said somewhat haltingly, trying to read my name off the page. I admitted it was me. “Very good paper. You have interesting ideas though one would never know it, sitting back there hiding behind a bushel.
It’s not that I never had anything to say. It was more like I had nothing to say that I thought the great Alfred Kazin would be interested in hearing. I expressed my ideas more in an elliptical, fragmented, impressionistic way than in a clear, well formulated narrative. What I really wanted to say or what I really thought about things were best expressed in writing. Also, though I had not witnessed it myself, I heard enough stories about Alfred Kazin’s infamous eviscerations and humiliations of graduate students for saying vague, ill thought out ideas, talking for the sake of talking but not really saying much of anything or saying too much of nothing. Sometimes an idea would pop into my head or even an opinion, but I was usually afraid to utter them in fear of being dismissed as an unthinking imbecilic fake, an imposter. Who’s to say I might not have sounded to Kazin and others in the class, like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, like some high pitched dung beetle desperate for attention, desperate to end its suffering as it is slowly squashed, day after day, beneath the boot of some faceless bureaucrat, so therefore I thought it better to say nothing at all. That is until I had to do my first oral presentation.
I spoke on Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener. I didn’t memorize anything. I had notes. In fact, things seemed to be going pretty well until I happened to mention the word “mindset.” “Mindset,” Kazin said in disgust. “I hate that word.” I had offended the creative sensibilities of the Great Alfred Kazin like playing a bad note for Beethoven. I think I even set off that tic just under his right eye. This is what I was talking about. But who knew? Everyone was using the word, or more accurately compound word, some recently and sloppily invented neologism that had no business creeping into great literature, let alone to describe great literary characters. Your next door neighbor had a “mindset,” not Bartleby the Scrivener. That was the thing with Kazin. For Kazin language was everything. It was precision and poetry both. It was not attached to the mind but born of the mind. It came from the soul and not from a psychology text. Trying to impress Kazin too much was always dangerous. Nothing was worse than ruining the life of a good idea with muddled and murky language.
“That’s the thing. That’s the thing,” he’d say. That’s the thing. Like the world was divided into two parts. That which was the thing. And that which was not the thing. I wanted so badly to be the thing and definitely not that which was not the thing and Bartleby having a mindset was definitely not the thing. So I sat there thinking any moment Kazin might hang a sign around my neck with the letter M on it, scarlet of course, or perhaps a deeper red, as a reminder never to use that word again. The funny thing is I never did use that word again. But it was obviously too late for me. Just saying it once had most likely denied me entrance into intellectual heaven or even having lunch with him one day in the celestial dining commons.
I could see Kazin waiting at the pearly gates telling some pretentious Saint not to let me in. “The idiot used the word mindset once in my class. I should have eviscerated him. That’s what I should have done. That’s the thing. Do you know what I mean? Eviscerated him. My students love that word. Yet, I have to admit it’s a wonderful word. Almost onomatopoeic.”
My second oral presentation was called “Moby Dick and the madness of Ahab,” whose mindset was even bigger than Bartleby’s, but I wouldn’t say that word, no sir, and ended up mostly quoting from sources other than myself, none of which used the word “mindset.”
Even if I say so myself, it was a brilliantly choreographed, masterfully woven oral report. And this time Kazin loved it. “I like the way you weaved those quotes together,” he told me the next day when we passed each other in the hallway. And I remember how he air-weaved my quotes in the air, just to emphasize how much he liked it, his hands, the great hands of Alfred Kazin circling in the air, now rising, now sinking, now lifting, now dipping like he was conducting an invisible orchestra.
The last oral report I remember giving for Alfred Kazin’s was on The Golden Bowl by Henry James. The Golden Bowl was a novel no one wanted to read. Even graduate students. Like the bowl itself, it was fairly thick, it stood out on the bookshelf, it reminded us every day of our lives, that we had not read it and most likely we would never read it, that all those words, all those winding sentences would remain just that, words, and we would argue with each other like the sound of the fallen tree in the forest whether or not those words really existed at all.
All we knew was that no doubt Kazin read the book and most likely Henry’s brother William did, or just pretended he did, it being the most pragmatic solution to an impossible situation. For, there being no doubt in any of our minds, The Golden Bowl was an impossible book. Or at least we had convinced ourselves it was, since we already had a particular mind . . . you know what about James and everything he ever wrote, including grocery lists, especially his later books.
No one had that kind of time or patience or certainly attention span to sit down and swallow those paragraphs whole, not word by word, or even sentence by sentence, but all at once or else you’d lose it all. It was an interminable roller coaster ride, not the kind of joy in which one delights in the crazy wild vertiginous spasms in one’s stomach, the thrill, the rush of excitement but only of pain. This was Henry James, the master of the topsy turvy, seasick sentence, which trying to comprehend was like being on a raft down the rapids without a paddle. I mean you would begin the sentence honestly and with good intentions and somewhere in the middle you were not only lost, hopelessly lost, with little chance of rescue, your mind already abandoning you half way down. Give it up! Give it up! it screamed down to you as you plummeted into literary oblivion, grabbing on to any familiar words or phrases, yet inevitably dashed against the sharp jagged rocks of incomprehensibility and thus left bleeding on the shore.
William James said to his brother Henry once, in a letter which Kazin himself quotes in his book, The Inmost Leaf, ”. . . But why won’t you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style?”
Yes, Henry, I remember mumbling to myself, “Why can’t you?” But Henry would have none of that, oh no, he’d remain true to who he was and if his brother didn’t like it he wished he wouldn’t read it: “—you seem so constitutionally unable to “enjoy it,” he had told his brother.
Yes, My Constitution! It was my constitution, this damn book was twisting it out of shape, sending me to the bathroom more times than I care to remember.
But Kazin liked it. And really when it came down to it that’s all that mattered. And yes, it was I who had to take on the Herculean task of reporting on this book and I had one week to do so.
It all began so innocently, or so it seemed. The class was just about over and as we were all getting ready to go, suddenly Kazin says,”Oh wait, one more thing. Who is reporting on The Golden Bowl next week?” Surely, I thought, the poor sucker who had been scheduled to do the report would like a good, well-behaved graduate student, sitting in the great Kazin’s class, would raise his or her hand and, yes, acknowledge it, own up to it, but that didn’t happen. We waited. And waited some more. Then Kazin said, somewhere between surprised and not that surprised, “No one?” Again, silence. And that silence, I’ll say it, but just this time, deafening. “No One?” He asked again, apparently in disbelief. I remembered the PBS series years earlier, I, Claudius, when Augustus Caesar asked a long line of Roman citizens, “Has anyone here NOT slept with my daughter!?”
“Is there anyone here who has actually READ The Golden Bowl?” Kazin asked a bit louder this time, but I knew now whether someone had or not was irrelevant. That even if someone had signed up, they were not about to admit it now. Maybe no one ever did sign up for it, maybe we all thought we’d get away with it. I know I did. It’s like death. You know it’s going to come, you kind of always knew in the back of your mind it was coming but when it comes you say to yourself, “Hey I never signed up for that dying shit!” If only, I thought. If only Alfred Kazin, our teacher, our mentor, our leader, our master and overlord of all human literature past and present had been better at keeping records!
For weeks we all, I in particular, believed that someone had already been picked to be our human sacrifice to Henry James and The Golden Bowl, and now suddenly, as we all stared in horror at that imaginary pit of burning lava boiling in the middle of the room, we knew that now, a new human sacrifice must be chosen.
“Well, Kazin said. “Who then would like to do The Golden Bowl next week?” I mean why not just ask who would like to die next week from the self-inflicted wounds you would be inflicting on yourself all week.
Silence. We were too busy now staring first at the imaginary pit that was becoming less and less imaginary as the seconds wore on and then finally under the table at our own shoes. I wondered, are these really my shoes? Are these the things that brought my feet into this room with such innocent light steps and would bring me out again as if I were Jacob Marley dragging those chains I forged in life.
“Mr. Antiopoulos?” I suddenly heard Kazin ask, as if fracturing the very air we breathed. “Would you like to . . .” “I already did The Will to Believe,” Mr. Angelopoulos quickly said. The Will to Believe! The Will to Believe! My God, The Will to Believe! He was right. I was the one who was supposed to do that one but when Kazin had asked us at the time who was doing The Will to Believe, I just sat there and said nothing. I figured he forgot I had volunteered earlier in the semester to do it, and since he kept no records, I just said nothing, and Mr. Angelopous volunteered to do it instead the following week and so I thought I had gotten away without giving a report at all. And now it was payback time. For being so cowardly, for not reporting on a relatively easy essay by William James, I was now in danger of having to do one on one of the most difficult books in the English language.
And so Kazin continued going around the room. “What about you Mr. Kornblatt?” he asked a student who once prefaced a remark by saying, “Daring to stretch this point further,” which made me want to stretch his neck from one end of the room to the other and then snap it back again. And I remember he did stretch the point, whatever point it may have been, but he went too far this time and Kazin snapped his point right back in his face. But he would not dare stick his neck out this time, and so rather sheepishly he declined, claiming eye surgery the following week.
So that was it. And now I felt it coming. And then there it was, as if an arrow suddenly struck me in the chest, “Ah, Mr. Levenberg,” he said. “What about you? You’re not getting eye surgery or going off to war, are you?” Didn’t he understand this was worse than any of those things? “What!! I wanted to say. “Are you crazy? Why me? Surely there must be others even more deserving than myself.” Where was Mr. Leavenworth when you needed him? In prison no doubt. So what choice did I have without my unknown doppelgänger to hide me, so what I really said – without a second’s hesitation, as if he had asked me to get him a cup of tea at the dining common – was “Sure, “I’ll do it.” Why not? I mean cut my heart out of my chest why don’t you? But I couldn’t say I already did one because I hadn’t. I couldn’t say no, or I’d rather not because it would only remind him of Bartleby and his stupid mindset. No, I had to do it. There was no way out.
And so I struggled. Sometimes, on the verge of madness I began to think what it was about me that Kazin liked. It certainly wasn’t my intellectual pretensions or my sycophantic tendencies to impress him like so many others, like so many cookie cutter sycophants and factory produced, humorless, anxious graduate students, but someone who saw the pleasure, the passion in literature, who made more of a visceral than cerebral connection, who refused or just couldn’t keep making literature more and more abstract until only a few could understand let alone enjoy it, its words, its images, to make it human and more accessible, even something like The Golden Bowl. After all, there must be something visceral and human about The Golden Bowl as well. With pain came pleasure and there must have been some pleasure in all this, not just the novel but in the very act of figuring it out, of turning it inside of bringing it out into the light of day, to expose its inner workings like a 19th Century German clock.
I thought just maybe I could handle The Golden Bowl more as a clock than a novel. That was the fun of literature, in making it what you wanted it to be, to shape its contours to the contours of your own imagination. Not to treat it like a Cyclops hiding in his cave to devour you once you entered, but to invite you in, tell you its story, to let you share in the wonder of this one eyed giant. Then of course, if he gives you the slightest bit of trouble, poke him in the eye with a flaming log and move on. The thing is to enjoy it. After all, Incomprehensibility can be a beautiful thing. James wanted us to at least enjoy its beauty, didn’t he? Well maybe enjoy is the wrong word. Appreciate? Who knows? What difference does it make anyway? I remember Phillip Carey in Of Human Bondage, a young man whose “mind moved with difficulty in regions of the Abstract; but it gave him a curious pleasure even when he could not follow the tortuosity of thoughts that threaded their nimble way on the edge of the incomprehensible.”
I suppose it was something like that. There were certain moments of giddiness, of being on the verge of mental and spiritual collapse, like the time I went out to buy another package of frozen clams and on the way back stepped in dog shit and how at that moment for some incomprehensible yet beautiful reason I suddenly felt particularly fond, if not adulatory of Kazin. Maybe because I was sacrificing myself, my mind and body for something more beautiful, more virtuous than mere human existence, for the spirit, for literature!
I pictured Kazin still sitting on his chair in our classroom on the somethingth floor of the Graduate Center, still there, days later, waiting as Auden would say, for the “miraculous birth” thinking of me, worried about me, as I slogged and sloughed through my “dreadful martyrdom.
Would he ever get up, I thought, or would Kazin still be sitting there next week, when I’d come back with my report, as yet not even written, its every thought, fragment ill-conceived idea drenched with sweat and anxiety and all the stomach acid produced by some hybrid physical and abstract mixture of despair, of defeatism, of helplessness and frozen clams?
And through it all I had to keep remembering what he said to me one day in his office when I asked if I could record one of his classes for a friend, an idea he didn’t like but still he let me do it because I interested him, because unlike most graduate students, he knew I really listened to him. Kazin wanted you to look at him to listen to him not to merely take notes and look at them later, or record them and listen to them later. Maybe that’s why he bristled just a bit when I asked him if I could record his class for the friend of mine.
No, he didn’t like the idea at all. It reminded me of the time I fell into the Cam River visiting a friend in Cambridge, ruining my camera so that for a whole week, that is until I bought another one. I had to look at things in real time, just me and the mountains, just me and Big Ben, just me and nothing in between. That’s what it was like being with Alfred Kazin. You did not record what he said, you listened to what he said.
”That’s fine,” he said. “Because you interest me.” I didn’t really know at the time what that had to do with letting me record him, but maybe he trusted me, connected with me in some way. Whatever it was, it was a line that never left me, that haunted me, that tormented me as to how I would be able to keep his interest. This report, this report was the reckoning I feared so much. This was it. Either I keep his interest or lose it. My God this would be worse than eating soup in front of him.
So I had to just not do it, get through it, but do it in an interesting enough way for Kazin. That was the thing. No, even if it meant killing myself in the effort I had to do it. I pictured myself cracking a great incomprehensible novel like a thief cracking a great uncrack able safe. The pain, the stress, the struggle was worth it if you actually cracked it. Don’t show fear, I thought. Approach it with confidence and certainty, with dignity and courage. Approach it like it is the last book you may ever read-which I felt was more possible with each passing day.
Great incomprehensible literature wasn’t written to scare you, was it? It was meant for explorers, for adventurers of the mind. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for? Right? I might die trying. But hey, that’s life. . Hey why study tragedy if you get nothing out of it? Yes, sometimes I lost the will to live. What of it? I’d get it back. It was a book for God’s sake, not Thebes. I’m no Oedipus. Oedipus didn’t read, he solved riddles and killed Kings who were his father and married women who were his mother and suffered every minute of it. I’m not Oedipus. I wouldn’t go to an oracle if you paid me. But the least I could do is read this damn book. Certainly there was this tragic inevitability I had to recognize here, that there was no turning back. No, I couldn’t go back. What would I say to Kazin? Professor, the sentences were too long. I was overdosing on Dramamine. I just couldn’t figure out what was happening. Once I got to the middle of a sentence I had forgotten what happened in the beginning of the sentence, so I had to go back and start all over again. Keep going I said to myself as each scene popped like a bubble in my head the moment I came to the next one. I was on that raft on the rapids again having no control where it took me crashing against the rocks thrown at last on shore bloody and bruised but still I had reached the end didn’t I? I didn’t die, did I?
Like Beckett said “You must go on. I can”t go on. I will go on.” I was on the edge of something here but of what? Life? Graduate school? My chair? My dignity? All of the above? This novel held my mind, my very life it seemed like Jonathan Edwards’ vengeful God holding that spider by its spindly legs just above the burning bowels of hell. But you couldn’t think of that. As far as you were concerned there was no God. Only you and Henry James. Sometimes you held the spider, sometimes James did, but you knew, I knew it was really Kazin. He was the one holding my legs over the fire. Maybe he was depending on me. Maybe he was pulling for me. He knew like any great literary figure that suffering was the meat of all existence and if you survived well then the next book – shall we say Wings of the Dove – won’t be so bad… Maybe I reminded Kazin of himself— I thought to myself lying in a bathtub soothing my mental wounds while thinking of the next chapter— someone who felt literature as well as thought about it. He knew that James’ words, his dizzying sentences might be the end of me, and like the great Sphinx could destroy me like so many others or else send me victorious into Thebes. But what if I started to actually enjoy those sentences, started to enjoy the sensation of holding on to each paragraph like the greased handlebars of a trapeze a thousand feet above the ground and without a net, holding on for dear life. What really was the thrill, where the challenge of a nice greaseless swing across the air always ending up safely on the other side of the abyss? I think of Victor Frankenstein’s dying words to poor conflicted Captain Walton on the verge of quitting his own “glorious expedition,” And wherefore was it glorious? Not because it was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror; because at every new incident, your fortitude was to be called forth, and your courage exhibited; because danger and death surrounded it and these you were to be brave and overcome!” I add the exclamation point myself since Victor’s breath at this point was no doubt failing him.
Breathing! Who could worry about such a trivial thing now? Yet I too, so many times, felt like giving it up. I was mentally exhausted, my psyche was half dead. It was getting dark for God’s sake; in fact, I don’t remember seeing the sun all week. I had a week to finish this book, to understand it, to write about it, to be insightful about it, and not once use the word “mindset.” I felt Kazin was in my room somewhere peeping at me through the darkness of my closet or hiding behind the only chair in my room, an old recliner I brought from my parents’ apartment, or just plain looking over my shoulder.
I read the introduction and thought it would never end. My God, Oedipus had an easier time getting past the Sphinx. The riddle of Sphinx was a breeze compared to reading The Golden Bowl and understanding it at the same time. Oedipus would be the first to admit it. Save Thebes? You can have the damn place, plague and all. What the hell does that oracle know anyway? Certainly, no more than the fortune telling machine in that great greasy diner in the Twilight Zone. But like Oedipus, like old Sam Beckett, I knew I had to go on. I must go on. But why? I was doomed to self-doubt no matter whom I quoted. Like my favorite Tennyson poem: “Theirs not to make a reply. Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do or die. Into the valley of death rode . . . Not the damn 600 but I! I! I!
I locked my bedroom door. I read all day. I made frozen dinners. I ate Matlaw’s stuffed clams for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One night, maybe half way through the book with disparate vague passages floating in my brain, I decided to take a walk, so I opened my bedroom door for the first time in days. I saw my roommate sitting in the shadows, and I could swear there were cobwebs growing on him as well as the furniture. I was getting the grad school DTs. He was playing “DOA” by the group Blood rock, a song about an ambulance taking away some bloody corpse. I strongly identified with that corpse. The song had more sirens than music that I couldn’t get out of my head for days. He asked how it was going. I told him I wanted to kill myself, but I still had several packs of Matlaw clams in the freezer.
Back in my room, I began to feel the walls closing in on me. Even the poster of Ernest Hemingway on my wall seemed to be mocking me. So was the typewriter on my desk. I could see the keys like each of my nerves trembling in dread and anticipation. And the very book, The Golden Bowl, lying there weighted down by precarious passages and top heavy sentences which the more I read, the fatter, the more gaseous it got, the more fat and gaseous I got.
And there was Hemingway too, moving closer and closer towards me. Did he want to say something or was he there to remind me of that big shotgun he took to blow his brains out? No, there was something else. I suddenly remembered his obsession with James’ so called bicycle accident that Hemingway was convinced he had lost his balls and that though he wrote beautifully, he also wrote about nothing. Maybe, I thought, that’s where I should start. The Golden Bowl is beautifully written but, as Ernest Hemingway said, it (and everything else Henry James wrote) is also about nothing.
I didn’t really believe it was about nothing but maybe just maybe it could still be beautiful. So I finally surrendered and decided I would not treat this like a graduate student, like some bloodless intellectual.
First, I had to admit to it. I was no intellectual. If I thought about it if I was asked about it I couldn’t even tell anyone what the book was even about or what happened. And that was the thing. Nothing happened. No one even said very much. They thought about everything. It was like they all lived their lives in their minds, hardly ate, hardly made love, except theoretically, hardly made a sound. That’s the first thing I noticed. The silence. Yes, my groaning made more sounds than anyone in the book. It was the quietest book I ever read. No one yelled. No one hammered nails in the wall to hang pictures, no one got shot, and somehow you could even hear the various gurgling noises the characters’ stomachs made. But once and this I noticed right away. At one point, yes at a very specific time and place, a bowl, I think a Golden one, fell and crashed. And this made noise. And this was the novel in a nutshell. And this was a nutshell in a bowl. And this was an important sound and it was the only sound I could remember. I began to see the novel, not necessarily understand it. At least not in some analytical or theoretical graduate school sort of way but to see it, listen to it, feel it, as another writer might have. In the middle of the night with Hemingway’s smirky disapproving face seeming to increase in size, to lurk more and more above me, I transformed from the abstract cerebral graduate student to the more concrete, sensual writer and knew, right or wrong which somehow no longer mattered, what I wanted to say. And maybe it was about nothing but, like Hemingway said, I had to admit really, it was beautiful.
Then, as they always say, the day arrived. I don’t remember much of what happened that evening but what I do remember is that the class was, for all intents and purposes, over, and Kazin had not yet mentioned my report on The Golden Bowl. Was he going to forget again? I thought. Was he giving me another chance to slip out of this? “All right,” he said, about to dismiss the class, “is there anything else?” and before I could even think about it, before anyone else could stretch one more point one more inch further, my hand shot up and he said “Yes, Mitchell? ”and I said this time without hesitation, “I have my report on The Golden Bowl,” and his eyes lit up and he said, “Oh yes yes of course go ahead.” I mean there was no way after all the sufferings and tortured and revelations, the gas and the heartburn, the dog shit on my shoes, the revelations about beauty and nothingness thanks to Hemingway and Oedipus about why Kazin for some mysterious reason probably was interested in me all that I was going to let myself get out of it now.
So I began to read it and at first I seemed to go a little too fast and he stopped me and told me to slow down and I apologized for mumbling and he said, “Don’t worry, I’ve been through a million miles of mumbles,” which my own mother or father never said to me ever.
So I slowed down and when I talked about the two main characters who stood like two gunslingers of the old west facing each other in mutual self-destruction, Kazin stopped me again.
I’m not really sure what that meant or why I said it, but I do remember Kazin suddenly stopping me, thinking he was about to criticize my choice of metaphors. After all, Henry James and the Old West? Jessie James definitely, but Henry?
But all he did was ask me to read that line again and then looking at no one on particular, repeated it to himself slowly with a creeping tic-less look of admiration on his face. “Go on. Please go on,” he said and I thought to myself, I can go on. I must go on, and yes, I did go on. And when I read my last sentence, I quickly looked up and said, in an ironic understated way, “That’s it,” because I really felt that was it and that if I walked out and never came back I’d be happy.
I did come back, though perhaps with a little less enthusiasm. It seemed at that moment I had reached the pinnacle with Kazin. And my motivation to continue was gone. What more could I ask for. I had come a long way from one character’s particular mindset to two characters facing each other in mutual self-destruction. Why ruin it? I had achieved all I could as far as graduate school was concerned and for me graduate school had become Alfred Kazin and the approval and respect that came with it.
I did take Kazin twice more though after that. And although there were no other momentous oral presentations to speak of, we would still though not that often, take walks around that infamous 12th floor.
Once on a cold winter’s afternoon we even spilled out into the street for a walk up and down the block, bringing giggles once again from my graduate friends when they noticed that not only were we both similarly hunched over again or walking slowly and methodically at the same pace, but that we were also wearing the same dark blue parkas. This was the time I had started showing Kazin some of my own writing so, though again a studied silence mostly dominated these walks, Kazin did say one day about my play that it was pretty “racy” and that the short story I showed him “just wasn’t his cup of tea,” and that good short stories should “always come to a boil,” which apparently mine didn’t.
After a while, especially after my course work ran out, we began to lose touch, and except for a letter of recommendation I had called him about, which he not only gladly agreed to do, but even invited my wife and me to come over for dinner sometime. I told him I’d love to but when I got off the phone I panicked. After all, since I was no longer his student, wouldn’t that mean no longer his student wouldn’t that mean suddenly having to change our relationship? But to what? Friend? Father? Uncle?
I remember I never had much intimacy with those real uncles I mentioned earlier. I’m sure if we sat together long enough, my uncles and I, nothing would be the same. They were kind of made for the external. Jokes, stories, but imagine sitting alone with any one of them. It would start out okay. Uncle Jack’s bone cracking handshake. Uncle Bob pulling quarters out of my ear. Uncle Martin’s bad taste jokes suddenly falling flat. Then what? It was only around the others that I could appreciate them because they made me feel comfortable around everyone else, that they did things and said things that I would have liked to do and say, but once everyone else was gone then what? Could we sit together and just talk about things? Did they ever talk to me about me? What did I do? Did they even know me?
Is this how it was with Kazin. We lacked that intimacy. It was the missing ingredient. It was the internal stuff we never found, so when he invited my wife and me to dinner at his house, the very suggestion of it seemed out of the question. Without an oral report binding us or a short silent walk around the 8th floor of the graduate center, what really was there between us?
My wife had told me after he had invited us to his house for dinner that if and when I decided to take him up on it, she probably wouldn’t go. . “No,” she said. “This is your thing, not mine. I’d feel out of place”.
“And you think I won’t?” I asked. “He’s not my friend. He’s not some second father or honorary uncle. He was my teacher.” I have nothing whatsoever to talk to him about. He’d expect me to say something profound I’m deadly sick of James. Besides what would I say about James? Or Poe? What could I say about Poe that he didn’t already know? Or Melville? Or Hawthorne? Or anyone for that matter that wouldn’t just sound like something he said already in class. I’d have to bring notes and I know he doesn’t like people reading back his own words at him.
“You could always listen,” she said. “Just listen and that way you can’t say anything wrong.”
Or right,” I told her. “In that case why go at all?” “Because he obviously likes you. Otherwise, why would he even bother to invite you?”
“Because he expects me to say something.” “Like what?” she asked.
“Something profound,” I said. Fathers or uncles or even friends never expect you to say something profound. Or just stupid or obvious, Kazin has no patience stupid or obvious. Or people just saying things for the sake of saying them.”
“You could always digress,” she said. “You could always digress if you had to. You know switch to something you know a lot about.”
“Are you kidding me?” I said. “Kazin is the master of Digression. I mean what could I digress about that would possibly interest him that he himself has digressed about ad Infinitum or not at all. Why would I expect Kazin to listen to my digressions unless the thing I’m talking about is so interesting a few digressions would only add to it. If you’re going to digress the thing you digress about should be even more interesting than the thing you were talking about in the first place.”
So I couldn’t take that chance. I can’t take the chance of using the wrong word of saying the wrong thing. In his own house, where genius resides, to foul it up with one wrong word, one foolish statement, one wrong opinion, one false slurp of his wife’s pea soup, and it would all fall apart. It would be tragic.
I guess I didn’t trust myself yet. That there still could come a time in a moment of weakness or insecurity that I would somehow disappoint him. But what if it wasn’t that at all? What if I had really feared he would disappoint me as well? To look upon him as some kind of demi-god is one thing but as a friend, an uncle, even a father, who knew how that would go? What if, having allowed myself to feel comfortable enough to finally eat soup with him, he mentions how my slurping noises remind him of his own father or like my own father, without warning, he suddenly insults me, calling me weak of mind and spirit for always agreeing with him? Then again, what if he made those same slurping noises when he ate soup just like his own father, or like my father suddenly became bitter and spiteful and dismissed every opposing view which I might have painfully, sheepishly offered during the evening, all, suddenly coming back to bite me.
What if we disappointed each other? What if both of us just stood there facing each other in mutual Jamesian disappointment? I didn’t know. But what I did know, but could never explain, was that I was not about to risk everything-my illusions, my insecurities, my weakness of spirit, my belief in his crude but brilliant perfection, in my own raw and uncertain possibility, in that wonderful yet fragile distance between the real and the ideal, all because I dared slurp soup with Alfred Kazin in his own apartment. What I did know, or certainly believed at the time, was that Alfred Kazin and I were never meant to slurp soup together. Yes, it was too dangerous even to be in the same kitchen together and so, alas, never meant to be.
And it wasn’t. After all those years of not seeing each other, there I was innocently looking at the paper as I do every morning, that headline glaring up at me. Accusingly? Innocently? Innocently accusing?
It reminded me of when I was a child and my grandmother would get angry at me for something and she’d say, “Who are you? Do I know you? You don’t look familiar to me. Am I supposed to know who you are? And by the way, where have you been?”
And that’s how it felt now seeing Alfred Kazin’s obituary. As if what it really said was: “Alfred Kazin, the great literary critic of the 20th century, passed away today. He is survived by so and so and so and so and wrote such and such and such and such, but more importantly, in his long and illustrious life, was disappointed by, and would now be eternally disappointed by, the following people:“
And then there would be a long list and I would look for my name and at first I wouldn’t see it and feel relieved, but then I would look again just to make sure and there it would be right at the top and first I’d be angry, at Kazin, at myself, but then I would be sorry, sorry that I had come too late, that no one had told me he had died, that it was too late to go to his funeral, too late to mourn the great man, to tell anecdotes and stories about us, about me and the great Kazin.