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This article is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.Letters
And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)
Trevor Winkfield, Portrait of John Ashbery (detail), 2014.
Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
MIDWAY THROUGH HIS LONGEST POEM, Flow Chart of 1991, John Ashbery’s speaker jokingly looks forward to the day when his complete correspondence will be published on onionskin paper. It is my guess that, even if issued in thick books that make use of the very thinnest paper available, John’s own collected letters would run to dozens of volumes. Despite his frequent apologies for being late in replying to letters received and his equally frequent laments that he has nothing much to report, John was an indefatigable correspondent. This was especially the case during the years that he spent in France (1955–65), when he traded letters with New York-based friends such as Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher.
For this commemoration of his life and work I have compiled a series of extracts from the hundreds of letters and emails I received from John between 1986 and his death on 3 September 2017.
A little context about the origins of our friendship might be useful for the reader of these extracts. In 1984 I embarked on a doctoral dissertation on his poetry under the supervision of John Bayley at Oxford University. I soon found myself particularly interested in the influence of the French writer Raymond Roussel on John’s poetic development; accordingly I wrote an essay comparing the two, and expounding John’s own research and publications on Roussel in the late fifties and early sixties.
I sent this to him in New York, and he eventually responded with the first letter in this selection, which is the only one reproduced in its entirety. That summer I introduced myself at the end of a reading that he gave at Adelphi College on Long Island, to which he alludes at the opening of his second letter to me, and we met up a number of times in New York and in London. In 1991 I moved to Kyoto in Japan, and from there sent him both my finally completed thesis, and my first collection of poetry: the former remained unread, but – always on the lookout for younger poets who might stimulate his imagination – he responded enthusiastically to Landlocked, and arranged to review it for this journal (see PN Review, January–February 1993).
It is my hope that readers of these extracts will excuse my inclusion of the second paragraph of his second letter to me, which still makes my face burn. John was astonishingly generous in his support and encouragement of numerous poets, both those older than himself, such as F. T. Prince, and those like myself and Ben Lerner and Todd Colby and Geoffrey G. O’Brien and Emily Skillings, of later generations. This letter of 18 March 1992, which initiated our Clarissa-length correspondence, graphically demonstrates his eagerness to charge his poetic batteries with whatever caught his attention or jolted his Muse into life. It was, indeed, his openness to the experiments of younger poets, so well illustrated by this letter, that helped his own later work, composed when he was America’s most prize-laden poet and had an enviable surplus of laurels on which to rest, to develop in fresh and surprising directions.
Most of the extracts included here relate to his reading, to films seen recently or long ago, to his favourite TV shows, or concern memories of persons such as Frank O’Hara, Jane Bowles, Jean Garrigue, W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. I was always tickled by his enjoyment of British comedy series such as Keeping Up Appearances, To the Manor Born, Fawlty Towers, The Office, Absolutely Fabulous, The Last of the Summer Wine, The Vicar of Dibley and Are You Being Served?, allusions to which crop up in many of his letters to me. I remember clearly an afternoon spent wandering around the Left Bank in Paris, in the course of which he revealed a fondness for the Lenny Henry vehicle, Chef, and even related the plots of a number of favourite episodes. Although famous as a poetic innovator and as a champion of the avant-garde, John derived pleasure from a very wide spectrum of sources, and I believe these extracts communicate the variety and eclecticism of his tastes.
The names he used to sign his letters convey a similar breadth of interests: Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (from an American radio sitcom of the forties and fifties); Mrs Harold Chillywater (from Ronald Firbank); Oriane de Guermantes; Boob McNutt (a 1930s comic strip character); Fleda Vetch (heroine of Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton); Sybil Fawlty; Pastor Fido (from an opera by Handel); The Countess Gruffanuff (from a Thackeray fairytale); Wackford Squeers and Mrs Fezziwig and Miss Havisham; Miss Turnstiles (from the 1949 movie On the Town); Dagwood Bumstead (from the comic strip Blondie); Diggory Venn (from Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native); Adinolfa, Carmichael, Bob Boucharessas (from Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique); Marjory Frobisher (from To the Manor Born); The Sea Hag (from Popeye); Puzzled in Pomona; Captain Peacock, Mr Grainger, Cuthbert Rumbold and Young Mr Grace (from Are You Being Served?).
Like these characters, John seemed indestructible. I am still finding it hard to believe I have no more of his witty, elegant, erudite, goofy, gossipy, supremely entertaining letters to look forward to – and then to answer as best I could.
I would like to thank David Kermani for permission to publish these extracts from John’s correspondence, and also for permission to print the previously unpublished poems that follow.
[Note on the text of letters: I have silently corrected obvious errors, and include, where it seems needed, supplementary information. All editorial interpolations are in square brackets.]
22 March 1986
Dear Mark Ford,
I’m awfully sorry I didn’t reply to your letter of just over a year ago, enclosing the paper on Raymond Roussel’s and my writing. Somehow it got squirreled away and I only just now read it, prompted by a letter from Robert Crawford [the editor of Verse, where my essay on RR and JA would be published]. I must say I found it excellent and was most impressed by your tracking down of some of my fugitive pieces and fitting excerpts from them into your argument. As I have just written to Mr Crawford, you of course have permission to use passages from my work which you quote throughout the paper. I think you have made a slight error on p. 22 when you talk about ‘frozen bodies galvanized back into movement by the aqua-micans’ – aren’t you referring to the passage wherein Canterel demonstrates the properties of his Resurrectine?
I’m sorry we didn’t meet up in Oxford last June as you had suggested. As it turned out, I was able to stay just long enough to do my reading, due to a tight schedule. I expect to be back in England in September as I have been invited to a poetry festival in Shrewsbury, though I’m not sure they still want me, since I was very late in sending my letter of acceptance (I am habitually delinquent in replying to all letters, not just those that come from England). Should that fall through, I shall probably come to England in the fall anyway and perhaps we could meet then.
Thanks so much for your letter and its accompaniments. Of course I remember you, first at Adelphi College, then the greasy spoon on 23rd St., then at a pub near the Tate with your friend Julian, two girls and John Ash. Meanwhile I have gratefully noted your reviews of me in the TLS, most recently of Flow Chart, which seems to have been trounced more severely than the usual Ashbery tome in the English press… These things tend to be cyclical; after a few bleak years review-wise in the US, I came out rather well with Flow Chart. Undoubtedly this stimulated a counter-reaction in the UK, even if no one there was aware of the American reviews, the two countries being rather like the woman with the watering can and the mackintosh-clad man in my Swiss barometer; when the former emerges from their chalet you can expect the heavens to unzip.
Enough of me and my reviews, let’s talk about YOU. Although you correctly intuit that I haven’t (yet) cracked your dissertation (beyond the three quotes at the beginning, which elicited a guffaw)*, I have read Landlocked several times and am absolutely bonkers about it, to the point of writing some poems ‘influenced’ by it, which I’ll send you some time if wheedled. One of them is called ‘The Decline of the West’ and is about my not having read Spengler. I was rather pleased with its first line: ‘O Oswald, O Spengler, this is very sad to find!’ Unfortunately no one in the US recognizes its origins in the first line of Browning’s ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’, but you, with your Oxford PhD, will have done so. And so back to you. I love the form you invented in ‘Then She Said She Had to Go’. Surely there are no more beautiful lines in English than ‘Away flies / A carrot I was about to eat’. It’s right up there with ‘The broken sheds looked sad and strange’ from Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’. But I want more! Are there different poems in Chatto Poets II, and if so could you maybe have them send it to me? Also I’d love to see any unpublished ones you might care to send winging this way.
Ah, Kyoto! Home of blowfish and Haagen-Daz! My Rousselian memory particularly retains a building just across the street from the old royal palace which looks like a Tudor-style mansion in Westchester County…
(18 March 1992)
[*These quotes were: ‘No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgments of time.’ (Harold Bloom) ‘Ashbery, it has to be said, is a poet so talentless that it’s a wonder his work has been published, let alone received the extravagantly lunatic praise some critics have accorded it.’ (Tom Paulin) ‘Once as I was falling asleep, I sort of imagined a debate between two critics, one of them was saying, ‘I don’t wanna raise my children in the world where John Ashbery can win the Pulitzer Prize,’ and the other one something like, ‘It’s not his fault that he’s responsible for my soul.’]
Did you ever hear of an Australian novelist from England named Elizabeth Jolley? I like a book of hers called The Sugar Mother, and recently started one called Cabin Fever, which I liked even more, but a friend borrowed it before I could finish it. Something about her writing reminds me of mine, though this is invisible to the naked eye.
I love Ozu’s movies, too, and saw a bunch of them at Moma once. In France in November I caught one on TV called, I think, Early Autumn. You know how hard it is to keep these titles straight. Also, a Japanese friend and translator of me just sent me a tape of I Was Born But, alas without subtitles, though I did see a titled version once.
My favorite translation of Hölderlin is Richard Sieburth’s Hymns and Fragments, published by Princeton UP in 1984. You might have trouble finding it. If so, I will look for you. One of the poems in it ends with a comma, an idea I promptly stole.
(10 March 1994)
It’s also strange that you talk about Whitman, because I’ve been re-reading him recently after not looking at his poetry for years, and thinking that I must have been influenced by him all along, as in these lines from ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’: ‘Who was to know what should come home to me? / Who knows but I am enjoying this? / Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?’
(5 June 1996)
I still hope one day to become known as the American Ford, even though it sounds a bit redundant. I was touched by your telling me you used to have my photo in your room at Oxford, as (I think I told you) I keep a polaroid of you in my ‘den’ stuck into a corner of the frame of a Victorian collage. I believe John Tranter took it… You seem to be standing in front of a Soho sex shop, wearing a black leather jacket and carrying something like a portable sewing machine wrapped in black oilcloth (the thought just darted across my mind – ‘Do I really know him?’)
(1 February 1999)
Speaking of northern Britain I’ve been watching Queer as Folk which I found at the video store across the street. After the first couple of listless episodes it really picked up and the characters assumed some depth, though I can’t imagine it raised the consciousness of the average Basingstoke housewife, since all they do is fuck, dance and chatter on their cellphones. I still have one cassette to go, and then the American series (filmed in Pittsburgh) starts on December 3. Judging from the previews they’ve lifted everything frame by frame from the Brit version, but what can you expect of Americans, who can’t even elect a president any more.
(15 November 2000)
I hope you won’t be disappointed by Jean Garrigue; in adolescence I had a crush on her poetry and later met her when I, and she (a lesbian), were living in the Village (she always reminded me a bit of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon). I’m not sure I’d still go hog wild for her poetry, though I would certainly include it in my hypothetical anthology [of neglected American poets of the 1930s]. (If I know about all these obscure writers, it’s that I’m old and when I discovered them they weren’t obscure.) I still love Mary Butts (who’s English, of course), the short stories even more than the novels (though they’re great too, especially Death of Felicity Taverner); my favorite of the stories is one called ‘In Bayswater’; ‘Widdershins’ is great too.
(5 December 2000)
Au fait, I mysteriously received some lost diaries of mine I wrote in high school. I’d lent them to my Chilean shrink 25 years ago, imagining they might be helpful to my therapy. I don’t think he ever looked at them though, and then he told me he lost them, except for the first one (1941). Then he died about ten years ago. Last week out of the blue an antique dealer called me at Bard saying he had some diaries of mine and did I want them back – he’d bought the contents of the shrink’s apartment quite a while ago and just happened on the diaries again. So then he came by and gave them to me! It’s like having a time capsule dropped on your head. I just looked in the 1941 one to see what happened 60 years ago. Are you ready? ‘Today I took a bath as soon as I got up. I went for a walk in the morning. The ice has flown from the mouth of the creek so the water is not as high as it was. A huge blanket of snow fell during the night, but it melted completely during the day.’ Dorothy Wordsworth would have approved. The day before, at my art class in Rochester: ‘One of my pictures was kept. It was a picture of Nazi boots crushing Holland tulips – “Tulip Time in Holland – 1940”. (And they say I don’t have a social conscience!) My other picture was one of a little brook.’
(29 March 2001)
I see the new TLS has something about a new book of Trakl translations, which sounds nice; I love his creepy poems. I’ve almost finished The Castle; it’s taken me forever as I have to reread every sentence 2 or 3 times, they never go where you expect them to, but what a marvel it is. So I guess I’ll go on rereading him; it’s been a long time. I have a new translation of The Trial and must check to see if there’s one of Amerika; if there is, I hope they haven’t changed the name of the Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma.
(17 October 2001)
If you haven’t seen Mulholland Drive, hie thee thither, hither, or – better yet – yon; it’s fabulous. I saw it on Friday in Hudson and went back on Sunday with David and our neighbors Rudy Wurlitzer, writer of novels and film scenarios – Little BuddhaThe Man Who Wasn’t There is uncharacteristically playing there; I hope to imbibe it this weekend. Last Sunday D and I caught Shallow Hal, the latest Farrelly brothers grossout. What was it like? Well, it was pretty gross, but also warm and fuzzy, which made for a strange emulsion, though there were some good laughs to be had. I also saw their earlier Me Myself and Irene which got lousy reviews, but much of it was okay even if you don’t like Jim Carrey, which nobody does (though somebody is obviously paying to see him). He plays a Rhode Island state trooper with two ‘multiple’ personalities, both in love with Rénee Zellweger, a ‘greenskeeper’ at a local golf course – she majored in turf management at UMass, which I learned in Amherst is something they actually teach there. The best thing about it was his address – a modest bungalow on the bay, at 1151 Mollusk Trail.
(6 December 2001)
Speaking of reading and Oxfordshire, I’ve been reading Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford, another Book Barn [a second-hand bookshop near Hudson] special. It’s very pleasant in its way, like a big dish of clotted cream, but it’s also the type of book one has difficulty imagining oneself finishing. And speaking of that, I’m still plugging away at Doughty’s Arabia Deserta, as I have done on and off for months. It’s the kind of book that never need be finished, but it’s very stimulating, like walking barefoot along hundreds of miles of pebbles. I really love it! I also took down from the shelf his epic poem The Dawn in Britain, surely the longest poem in English, and (according to Auden) the greatest. But after only about three pages I was assailed by a feeling akin to sunstroke, despite the prevailing dense fogs.
(9 October 2003)
I did indeed translate for peanuts, and hardly a swimming pool of them, a monograph on Melville when I was down if not precisely out in Paris. The author was a Sorbonne professor named Jean-Jacques Mayoux. When I went to ask him where I could find the passages in Melville that he had translated into French, I learned to my horror that he hadn’t kept any records. Since I couldn’t very well render them in my own English, I had to buy all the books – not easy in Paris at that time – and go leafing through them in search of fugitive sentences or even phrases.
(9 January 2006)
Just got an e-mail this morning from Olivier [Brossard], who says that Claire is dragging him to The Secret of Brokeback Mountain [sic]. I seem to be the last of my race who hasn’t seen it and I no longer have the excuse that it’s not playing at the redneck-oriented mall in Hudson, because it is. Actually, those red necks have taken on a distinctly mauve cast in recent years, which has made for hard feelings all round (no pun intended). Recently, my friend the novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, who’s very tall and athletic and in his late 60s, had to settle his deceased mother’s Park Avenue apartment and somehow dispose of her toy poodle, which he brought up to Hudson while deciding what to do with it. One morning as he was making coffee in just his pajama pants, he let the dog out and noticed it slipping through a gap in the board fence, rushed out and chased it down the street, finally catching it by the hind leg in the middle of a busy thoroughfare at the same moment his pants fell down to his ankles, which prompted a passenger in a passing pickup truck to yell ‘Hey, you old faggot, why don’t you go back where you came from?’ Rudy, who is acutely straight, mustered as much dignity as possible under the circumstances and yelled back ‘I’m not old!’
(2 February 2006)
Anyway, The Sacred Fount is wonderful, though it’s also the most impossible and irritating book James ever wrote. It depressed me to realize that I first read it in 1954, ’53 years after its publication, and that was 52 years ago. O temps, suspends ton vol! The one line that stuck in my head all these years is the following: ‘The last calls of birds sounded extraordinarily loud; they were like the timed, serious splashes, in wide, still water, of divers not expecting to rise again.’ Beautiful though hardly typical of a work in which description, as Henry might say, is as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth.
(late August 2006)
Which reminds me – tomorrow is Googie Withers’s 90th birthday – she of On Approval, Dead of Night, Pink String and Sealing Wax and many another cinematic masterwork. On Approval is still my third favorite movie. Alas, this past week saw the passing of John Inman, ‘Mr Humphries’ on Are You Being Served? He was only 71. This is perhaps the most popular of all the Britcoms over here – you can catch it on TV on almost any given night. In fact we watched two episodes of it last night here in Hudson, along with a mini-biopic of him. It included an interview with Mollie Sugden who played Mrs Slocombe, the one who is always talking about her pussy (‘My next-door neighbor was driven wild by the sight of my pussy!’).
(12 March 2007)
I am on the last volume of [Javier] Marías’s fiction translated into English, alas (though there may be others in French). I don’t know if he is a great writer but he’s certainly addicting, like some weird literary drug. The one I’ve saved for last is a volume of short stories called When I Was Mortal, which comes from the same speech in Richard III as his title Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. They are quite wonderful so far, notably one with the intriguing title ‘Broken Binoculars’ and another called ‘Everything Bad Comes Back’, a cheery thought. Why is his distressing, macabre sensibility so tonic? The master himself informs me that he is working night and day on the last volume of the trilogy, already by far his longest book at more than 500 pages.
(9 April 2007)
I’ve been reading the letters of Jane Bowles, and fear that her epistolary style may be influencing mine. Just opening one could have driven one stark raving mad, especially if one were Paul Bowles, yet I still believe she was a great writer despite her tiny output and even the letters reflect this. There’s something magical about her writing. I’m also reading her biography, a cautionary tale. Did I ever tell you about calling on her and Paul in Tangier? If not remind me to do so sometime. One of my favorite moments was accompanying her to the post office to mail an envelope of newspaper clippings in various languages to her uncle in Brooklyn so he could make a screen out of them. As she was printing the return address she asked me, ‘How do you spell Morocco?’
(9 July 2007)
Once again you have blindsided me with a name from the jurassic era, in this case Mona Drucker, the glum-faced guardian of the OUP mail department [JA worked for Oxford University Press in New York in the 1950s]. How unfortunate that Rosangela has dug up that poem, which even I haven’t seen in 57 years. You are aware, perhaps, that it’s an imitation of the poem the New Yorker published every year at holiday time… It ushered in a swarm of bleak memories that make The Office look like Mr Wardle’s Christmas. One is of Walter Campbell (one of the few employees I was friendly with – years later he wrote me a fan letter about A Nest of Ninnies) remarking, as we headed downstairs (that is from the sixth floor ((editorial and sales)) to the fifth floor (the proletariat) for the annual party: ‘Well, on to the cup that inebriates but does not cheer.’
(30 August 2007)
I did finally finish the Caradec biography [of Raymond Roussel], and was pleased to note that he credited me with actually discovering Charlotte Dufrène [who was employed by RR to be his female companion] and telling [Michel] Leiris about her poverty, which he then was kind enough to palliate. Did I ever tell you the story? I went to Brussels armed with the last address he had for her, which turned out to be a small building of flats with a shop on the ground floor. I asked the shopkeeper if he knew her and drew a blank. Just then another tenant happened to pass through the shop and said she had gone to live at a charitable old folks home, the ‘Home Jean van Aa’. So I went there and saw her sitting in a solarium with other crones; she seemed to be expecting me, and later told me she had received the letters I’d written her there, but was too embarrassed, or something, to answer. So I went out and bought her some treats including a bottle of cognac, which was well received. (I’d have lived on the stuff if I were a pensioner there.) I saw her a few more times, including at a poetry reading I gave at the office of the US cultural attaché (a well-known musicologist named Gilbert Chase). I tried to discourage her from coming but she insisted, and cut a quite remarkable figure in the remains of her finery. I also saw her once at the much nicer private home Leiris had her put in, though she wasn’t all that pleased with it as she had to leave her friends behind at the other place. I remember her remarking: ‘Michel Leiris croit que c’est le paradis terrestre ici…’
(1 October 2007)
Just heard from Guy Maddin yesterday after a long silence as to our oft-postponed collaboration. He has a wonderful idea that will involve Rousselian parenthetical strategies and famous lost films such as Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight and a Fritz Lang silent called Lilith and Ly – something to do with a stolen Indian ruby and the havoc it wreaks in Europe before its owner throws it into the ocean or something. Sounds like something I’ll really be able to dig my teeth into. By the way, the DVD of his film Brand Upon the Brain! will be out soon and uses my narration from the New York screening last year. I think I told you I gave a passable impersonation of Criswell in Plan Nine from Outer Space.
(16 April 2008)
Trevor [Winkfield]’s and my opening [at Tibor de Nagy of paintings by TW and collages by JA] is next Thursday and my little heart is going pitter-pat as a Times art critic is coming here to interview me tomorrow. Meanwhile I just wanted to let you know about a dream I had about you the other night. First of all I often have dreams where I am walking around Greenwich Village discovering new old quaint sections of it I’ve never seen before and very often say to myself, Oh, this must be one of those dreams again! In this dream you and I were walking through some spectacularly well-aged urban scenery, and I was saying I love exploring the Village and you said, I do too! Then I pointed up ahead towards my favorite Village street, Morton Street, where I lived in the early fifties and said, There’s Morton Street, my favorite street! But it didn’t look anything like the original. Then we went back to where I was living in a vast commercial building that was partially occupied by squatters who had founded some kind of street theater. My room was large and bare though fairly comfortable. You were staying some distance away along a corridor, in a room that was also occupied by a cheerless middle aged man, bald, who looked slightly like the actor William H. Macy. I don’t think there was anything ‘going on’ between you.
(29 August 2008)
Isn’t it great about the elections!!! I feel I have emerged from a long nightmare lasting at least since the millennium. Though this feeling may well only last another week. For some reason I keep thinking about the Auden lines from The Sea and the Mirror, (which I don’t have here), something like: ‘The witch gave a squawk, her venomous body / melted into air as water leaves a spring / And the high green hill sits always by the sea.’
(11 November 2008)
I hope the girls liked ‘On the Town’ on the grand écran. I saw it with Frank O’H at the lamented Eighth Street Playhouse (actually a cinema) when he came to New York for the Christmas holidays in... 1950! After that we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge (it was very mild) with his friend George Montgomery. The frocks are super, especially Ann Miller’s green outfit. Yes, I once had a ‘date’ with her arranged by some Broadway person who thought it would be fun to bring us together. I happened to speak to Pierre [Martory, with whom JA lived from 1956–65] in Paris that day and told him I would be meeting her, and did he know who she was. He said disgustedly, ‘Of course, she was in Vous ne l’emporterez pas avec vous’, meaning the 1938 hit You Can’t Take It with You. Since I couldn’t think of anything to say to her, I told her this item, to which she replied in panic-stricken tones, ‘Yes, when I was FIFTEEN YEARS OLD’ (Of course he had also seen her in Reveille with Beverly during the war in Morocco, devant une foule en délire as I relate in my preface to The Landscapist [posthumously published collection of Martory’s poems].)
PS – your mention of Mather Byles etc. reminded me that there was a prominent American puritan named Preserved Fish.
(26 December 2008)
I’ve seen two movies (in cinemas) this summer – Brüno [starring Sacha Baron Cohen], the most refreshingly disgusting film ever made, and Julie and Julia, in which Meryl Streep does a good impersonation of our beloved chef Julia Child, but which is otherwise of no interest. Last night on TV I saw a terrific 1947 English noir I never heard of, called They Made Me a Fugitive (its US title was They Made Me a Criminal – I guess it’s not polite to mention fugitives over here; too bad I omitted both titles from my ‘They’ movie poem [‘They Knew What They Wanted’]), directed by Cavalcanti and starring Trevor Howard and voluptuous Sally Gray. The main surprise for me, however, was the composer of the score – Marius-François Gaillard, who wrote the music for one of Roussel’s plays (I can’t remember which [it was La Poussière de Soleils of 1926]), and whom I’ve never heard of in any other context. When I was doing Roussel research in Paris circa 1961, I tried to interview him, but he kept making appointments and then standing me up. At least I think it was him – there was another composer who did a Roussel score who received me very civilly chez lui, and whose name I can’t remember unless it was he who was MFG, but he, the one who did see me, wanted mainly to talk about an operetta he’d once written called La Belle de Haguenau [the music for this was by André Cadou], which sounds like something that RR and Mme Dufrène would have booked seats for every performance of.
(8 September 2009)
Funnily enough, I was planning to write you today when your latest arrived. I’d been meaning to for weeks in fact, but couldn’t get out from under the cloud of unknowing of having to finish my Rimbaud translation, which has hovered over me for more than a year, until – yesterday, when I finally completed what seems to be a submittable draft. The anxiety has prevented me from indulging in all sorts of pleasant activities, though watching Are You Being Served? wasn’t one of them. The latest chapter to hit Hudson was one I hadn’t seen before featuring a c. 1973 Joanna Lumley, in her pre-AbFab and Gurkha awareness phase. Thanks to the wonder of Google I learned that she was married to Jeremy Lloyd, co-creator of AYBS. I’m ill at the thought of missing the Selfridge’s sale [of Are You Being Served? memorabilia]. I would have bid on the tape measure that Mrs Slocombe (note spelling) used on a bolt of fabric in the episode where they were re-decorating the employees’ lounge – she pressed it against Mr Humphries’ fly, remarking ‘That’ll give us a couple of inches to play with.’ The same night (as Lumley’s appearance) I saw Trevor Bannister (Mr Lucas) in a more recent but still ancient (c. 1995) episode of Keeping Up Appearances, where he suffered the indignity of playing Rose’s boyfriend. (Which reminds me of a dream I had recently where I was showing you around an antique shop built at the edge of Lake Ontario, and open to it, in Pultneyville. The room we were in was full of mouldy looking flowered chintzes, and you seemed apprehensive. Then I mentioned that that evening we’d be able to watch Hyacinth [Bucket, pronounced Bouquet, a character in Keeping Up Appearances] on the telly, and you turned a whiter shade of pale.)
(22 January 2010)
What a treat to get your latest just as I was stepping into the car to go to Rochester (where I gave a reading – local boy makes good). And I thought it was me owed you a letter, which made it even nicer. And the cherry on the sundae was the simultaneous arrival (by hand delivery) of the latest NYRB, featuring you, me and Arthur [Rimbaud], so I got to read us on the trip – during which we passed an ominous looking funnel shaped cloud which later hit western Massachusetts, not normally tornado country, wreaking much havoc. Your Auden essay was worth the wait. How do you do it? Positively LOL. You sure nailed the old curmudgeon. Did you know I once visited him and Chester at Kirchstetten? In the summer of 59 Pierre and I were visiting Vienna (as is recounted in my world-famous poem, Self-Portrait etc.) and ran into Chester on the street (just as, some thirty years later, I would run into the only person I knew in Budapest on a day-trip with Pierre to that city), and he invited us out there to lunch next day. Actually lunch was at some sort of local jumble sale and raffle (I won a bar of Cashmere Bouquet soap) where Herr Doktor Auden was much feted. Chester had explained that Miss Master (his name for WHA) had absolutely forbidden cruising in Kirchstetten. I kept noticing a handsome youth in the background who was looking urgently in Chester’s direction, and kept interrupting an anecdote he was telling to point him out. ‘Chester, do you know him?’ C: (sotto voce) ‘Yes.’ Finally, ‘Chester, who is he?’ C: (sempre sotto voce): ‘God’, before resuming his anecdote without dropping a stitch.
(7 June 2011)
We’re slowly getting back to normal after a weird season of hurricanes, snow, elections, power outages and, in my case, a bruised knee. The knee is better, thanks to a physical therapist of Sri Lankan descent and drill-sergeant temperament who comes to the apartment to put me through my paces, or hers, rather. I’ve also got a nice ‘older’ man (though by no means as old as me) who comes for ‘home care’, thanks to an agency that looks after gay seniors, which, of course sounds like an oxymoron. It’s part of an organization called SAGE, which used to stand for Senior Action in a Gay Environment back in the eighties, when I participated in a benefit reading for them, along with such distinguished perverts as Richard Howard and Marilyn Hacker. I think it now stands for something slightly less silly. One day they sent a beauteous young Mexican classical flutist, named Felipe Tristan, who brought his flute along and serenaded us with airs by the likes of Glück and Mozart. They don’t mind bathing you in the places where it really matters. As I was putting on underwear and shifting my ‘junk’, he said: ‘Shall we adjust?’
(9 November 2012)
Charles Trenet [French singer-songwriter popular in the 1930s and ’40s] is probably the reason I wanted to go to Paris in the first place, having listened to some discs recently brought back from Paris in about 1946 at a friend’s home in Scarsdale, of all places. It seemed to be what I had always been looking for and not known how to describe. I have a CD of his music, which I’ll be glad to force you to listen to while you’re here. That song ‘Y a de la joie’ is mentioned rather disapprovingly in some Auden poem as an example of how the ditzy French comported themselves in the days just before the Nazi roll out. Trenet was in a few movies and was known as le fou chantant. He was also known for his fondness for boys, which occasionally got him into trouble, as once on an airplane. Amazingly, the French didn’t seem to mind too much.
(15 February 2014)
I’m so glad you liked Trenet’s La Mer. It was kind of a crossover hit for him, big, gushy, romantic – which worked very well… I was, dans le temps, also taken with Bécaud, and especially Aznavour, who’s still churning them out and is one of those people I value because they’re actually older than me. He sings very nicely in English as well as in French. Jean Sablon was, unless I’m mistaken, the only other gay one besides Charlot. His biggest hits were ‘Vous qui passez sans me voir’ (sob!) and ‘Un Fiacre’, which gave its name to Paris’s best known gay bar of the fifties, where I met Pierre.
(18 March 2014)
I’ve been trying to supplement my usual reading of the Times, LRB and TLS with something more nourishing, and decided to crack open some of the hundreds of unread books I own. A friend just gave me P.G. Wodehouse’s Damsel in Distress, which was made into a thirties musical starring Fred Astaire and someone other than Ginger Rogers, as well as harebrained Gracie Allen. There’s a rather nice scene in an amusement park fun-house, but I can’t seem to revive my 12-year-old passion for P.G., maybe because of all of those broadcasts during the as yet unthought-of war. So I decided to crack the work of George Meredith. I thought of trying Diana of the Crossways or The Tragic Comedians, but David said the type was too small and brought me instead Lord Ormont and His Aminta. I see that his most salient characteristic is oddness, which I, surely, have nothing against. Frank O used to like a poem of his called ‘Jump for Glory Jane’, it seems to me, and of course ‘Modern Love’ is peachy, don’t you agree?
(5 June, 2015)
The election brouhaha passeth all, or at least my, understanding. I have gone on record as saying that if Trump wins I will take the train to East Hampton, a taxi to the beach, and walk slowly into the waves à la Norman Maine. Of course I won’t do any such thing. I’m not sure how many people noted what I consider the low point in the already subterranean goings-on: when Rubio said of Trump ‘you know what it means when men have small fingers’, implying that a big dick is a prerequisite for occupancy of the Oval Office. Well, why not? ... au point où nous en sommes.
(8 May 2016)
Did you ever read the novel Belchamber by Howard Overing Sturgis? He was a gay American in England, friend of Forster I think. I have a tiny Oxford World Classics edition, which I seem to have stolen from Butler library at Columbia in October 1949, when I apparently lived at 129 West 12th street, which I don’t believe I ever did, unless that’s the apartment where Frank O’Hara met Larry Rivers at a party I gave. Their two sets of feet were noticed below some curtains, or ‘drapes’ as they were called, over the window. Mem’ries... I’m thinking of making yet another attempt to read this, no-doubt, inconsequential work, if only out of spite for all the great books I haven’t read yet, and no-doubt never will (Sartor Resartus, anyone?). One of the characters is named Lady Charmington.
(13 May 2017)
As this salutation might indicate, I’m deep in the world of television cookery these days, nostalgic no-doubt for the days before ‘mobility issues’, when I used to do quite a lot of it myself. David’s and my evening television ritual begins at six with BBC America, followed by NBC News and PBS News, then by lovable French chef Jacques Pepin, Lidia’s Kitchen (she’s Italian-American), America’s Test Kitchen, which is fascinating due to its sympathetic, though by no means attractive, staff of ‘testers’, and then fenced by Rachel Maddow, a fiery lesbian news analyst, who must be a favorite ‘hate watch’ of Donald Trump, followed by fitful rest for me, on my chaste, state-of-the-art hospital bed. Somewhere toward the beginning of all that I get my one-and-only ‘slurpee’, our name for the gin martini I’m awarded each night. David is a bit more generous with them for himself. And so it goes...
(21 July 2017)
This article is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.