Our content is reader supported. Things you buy through links on our site may earn us a commission
Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Notes in the Margin (Part V)

Robinson: A Profile

The scene of the kitchen table is repeated throughout a book. Every morning and night, the three of them congregate around it. I am on a bus in New Hampshire in early 2020, coming back from a funeral, and I do not have the novel with me.

Books can be read without having to physically possess them.

A reader might be able to be excused if certain kitchen scenes from Marilynne Robinson’s Home become blended in their memory, however there is one that is distinctive. 

It is only about halfway through the book and it is an instance that disturbs a traditional pattern. Glory, Jack (her brother), and Reverend Boughton are all at the kitchen table in Gilead. Jack hasn’t been back home for very long, likely not even a full week at this stage.

After two decades, Ulysses was finally able to return to Ithaca. In contrast, Jack has been a regular disappointment, usually in St. Louis. It would be unlikely to label him as “prodigal” as the prodigal son in the parable squandered his inheritance. 

Depending on one’s definition of inheritance, he has very little to give away, at least nothing material. He does, however, still possess his intellect and charisma, even in his current worn-down condition.

Jack was unable to prevent himself from stumbling and falling. Glory also had her own issues in the real world and is part of a family of eight children. 

The other six are located in the Midwest and have children, jobs, and hectic lifestyles. 

Teddy is a doctor, while the others are doing quite well. Glory, who is a devoted teacher, was left without children when her engagement ended because her partner turned out to be untrustworthy. 

The story takes place in Iowa during the Eisenhower presidency, and Glory went back to her home to take care of her elderly dad.

We can understand why Glory has returned. However, what about Jack? His and Glory’s mom passed away a few years ago, and he was absent from her funeral, which is a hard way to make a comeback. 

So why did he decide to show up in Gilead after all this time? We never get a concrete response, and I’m glad for that. Perhaps, at some point in our lives, we all come to the only entryway that will accept us.

At three in the morning, none of the occupants of the old house can find rest. 

Unexpectedly, the three of them have been roused from their beds, and without a word, they make their way towards the kitchen table 

  • the epicenter of their world. Even though none of them are really hungry, Glory begins making pancakes
  •  as if the act of cooking could mend the distress that brought them together. The idea of having hot food, regardless of appetite, might just be the remedy for their wounded spirits.

What could Jack have done to warrant coming home? Even a minor misstep may have serious repercussions, and he may have encountered the police before. 

Not much dialogue occurs in the scene, with Reverend Boughton eventually falling asleep in his chair and Jack taking him back to bed like a youngster, much like I have done with my own kids.

Nothing was settled and nothing was resolved in that moment. So, the trio went back to their slumber. 

When they awoke again in a few hours, they were drowsy and perturbed. It does not seem as if any of them spoke of the prior evening. 

Nevertheless, it occurred. Jack lifted his dad and transported him to his bed. It was a start, of something we are not aware of, however a commencement.

At some point in the book, Reverend Boughton requested that Jack stay still and allow him to observe him. This reminded me of my own father who used to make a similar plea, only I never allowed him to take a look.

Chekhov and Howe: Exploring the Works of Two Influential Authors

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Irving Howe was a celebrated figure whose book World of Our Fathers was a bestseller in almost every Jewish family room across the United States. Allegedly, the work focused on the experiences of Jews from the Pale of Settlement who had migrated to the Lower East Side. 

Despite the fact that everyone in my Chicago-based family owned the book, I never witnessed any of them reading it. 

It seemed to be a book for men that men didn’t read. I believe that we already knew the story: we were oppressed, killed off, and then came here and the suffering mostly stopped.

I recently discovered that Howe was an attentive and financially calculated literary reviewer. He was responsible for ensuring that some Yiddish writers were not forgotten over time. 

Last few months, while I was waiting for my daughter to finish her Hebrew school classes (when hanging out in public places was still feasible), I came across Howe’s A Critic ‘s Notebook in the temple library. In this compilation, I read a piece about Chekhov. 

Howe states what any good critic should but rarely does: that anything he has to say about Chekhov is insignificant when put against the work itself. He advises to read Chekhov’s “In the Cart” instead.

It is time to say goodbye and end this conversation.

It’s not just a recommendation; he has to go further. After all, that’s his job – to spin words. In the end, though, he’s telling us the same thing: go and read the story yourself.

On a later day, I was in a Dunkin’ Donuts in Grantham, New Hampshire, reading “In the Cart.” 

The clock was ticking 7:30AM, and the place was filled with individuals off to their morning jobs and classes. 

An employee was walking around offering complimentary toothpick samples of Dunkin’s newest breakfast sandwich. 

To my eyes, there wasn’t much of a change from the old one. Still, life was good. People were kind to each other. Dunkin’ had free samples. We strangers exchanged warm grins while holding a piece of egg and sausage on pita bread.

On a gorgeous spring day, Marya Vasilievna, the village schoolteacher, is headed to the city to collect her salary. 

It’s a trip she takes every season and despises each second of it. She’s aware that the peasants, like Old Semyon who is driving her now, believe she makes too much money and has a higher status than them.

The path to the town is sloppy and full of ruts, and the carriage is bouncing about. Old Semyon speaks to it occasionally and mentions that a villain had been taken into custody for the killing of Mayor Alekseyev. 

They then run into a man named Khanov, who is a wealthy landowner in his forties and a heavy drinker with a worn-out face and a listless expression. He says he is heading to Bakvist’s place but has heard that he is not home. 

That is the conclusion of that scene. The questions of who is Bakvist and why Khanov is going to his house remain unanswered, and Chekhov lets it be that way.

As they persist on, Marya Vasilievna’s thought process drifts to the numerous hardships she has faced in life. 

For a moment, she even contemplates the prospect of marrying Khanov. May Chekhov’s spirit excuse me for cutting it up for the purpose of preserving space.

Being a wife? Every morning was chilly, and no one to start up the fire. The custodian was nowhere to be seen… Her head throbbed every day after school and supper time left her with a feeling of burning in her chest… Then during the night, she would have visions of tests, serfs, and snow mounds. 

This existence had aged her and made her ugly; she had become clumsy and ungainly, like she was stuffed with lead… Nobody favored her, and her life was going by sadly, without love, without the compassion of companions, and without any stimulating contacts. 

How dreadful it would be if she were to become enamored in her condition!

I should not speak any further; it is so obvious. What is the purpose of talking when we should be quiet? However, like Howe, I must make a living. All that Chekhov comprehended about me–and possibly even you–is that we are all miserable rural teachers, and we want to remain that way. 

Goodness, consider the dangers if our occasional fantasies were to come to fruition.

I, Brennan

Maeve Brennan was renowned as one of the luminaries during the mid-’50s to the end of the ’60s at The New Yorker, and one of its few women employees. 

Her “Long-Winded Lady” column was a standout in “The Talk of the Town.” John Updike said her talents brought New York to The New Yorker, being a displaced Irishwoman with a remarkable eye for detail. Nothing was overstated in the “Long-Winded Lady”. 

This is what makes her prose so captivating; she leaves just enough unsaid so that the reader is invited to complete the scene she has created. She entices you to join her in her written world.

In her last “Long-Winded” work, “A Cold Morning,” Brennan conveys the feeling of tension associated with waiting in the still, dark morning.

In a more typical display of brilliance, “A Snowy Night on West Forty-Ninth Street” contains this sentence.

At night, when the dazzling Broadway lights come alive, when they twinkle skyward and down the walls of buildings, when they snake around the edges of roofs and form sparkling crowns in dark spots, and the windows of abandoned downtown offices become a sea of shiny reflections, when the area is transformed into a grand nighttime kingdom from its haphazard daytime state, a faint pinkish haze fills the space, a misty pink, like a transparent and colourful canopy.

I felt an urge to yell out the window into the deserted road: Has anyone read Maeve Brennan? Is there still somebody living? This shows how she builds a sentence, exploring a visual in different ways, indicating rather than concluding. She encourages us to witness the ruined nighttime kingdom.

There is no conceit associated with Brennan. She never saunters around believing she is superior to anyone–not those who read her work or even the people she observes keenly. 

In a tiny article written in the mid-’50s entitled “Painful Choice,” she paints a picture of a man in a grocery store attempting to decide, with limited funds, whether to purchase a can of beans, a canned dinner, soup, or chicken a la king.

He was standing there, with four cans in his hands and the few coins that he possessed, which amounted to either thirty-seven or twenty-nine cents, and looking around him at the various stalls of groceries like vegetables, fruit and bread.

Maeve Brennan was like so many that she paid close attention to, always on the brink of disaster. 

The early ’70s saw her alcoholism and mental illness fully manifest. William Maxwell wrote regretfully of the attempts of her friends and colleagues to help her and the growing difficulty of the situation. 

Her biography, written by Angela Bourke, portrays her decline with kindness, grief, and understanding. She was in and out of institutions, as well as less than desirable hotel rooms.

She had a bad habit of going off her medication when she felt good, which led to disastrous consequences like the time she destroyed the windows of a co-worker’s office. Gossip circulated the workplace. 

At times, she rested in the women’s washroom at The New Yorker. But more often, she vanished into the city streets she knew so well. She wasn’t writing as much anymore. Occasionally, she sent an article to William Maxwell, and The New Yorker ran her “Long-Winded Lady” column. 

The magazine kept sending her money, so she would stop by the offices to pick it up. Bourke’s account states:

She had rescued a sickly pigeon from the street and took care of it in her home. After receiving her wage, she would go to the Morgan Guaranty Trust on the corner of 44th Street and Fifth Avenue to cash it. 

Afterward, she would stand outside the bank, across the street, and give out money to those who passed by.

The stories of Maeve Brennan, whether it be nursing sick pigeons or handing out cash in front of a bank, are certainly memorable. 

She passed away in a New York City nursing home at the age of 76 in 1993. Should I ever find myself in a desperate situation, I would like to pay tribute to Maeve Brennan by giving away money in front of the West Lebanon branch of Ledyard bank.

Brennan’s work stands out in its own right due to her permanently outward-looking viewpoint. 

This perspective encompasses the urban landscape of both New York and her home city of Dublin, but even more importantly, her people who are not overlooked as she herself is part of them.

The Second Brennan

Maeve Brennan’s “The Beginning of a Long Story” depicts a mother who only wields power when she is with her three daughters, or when a stranger appears at the door in need. Ellen, the eldest daughter, who is 8 years old, recollects the time a fellow knocked and begged her mom for any used boots 

  •  it was pouring of course; as is typical in Maeve Brennan’s Dublin. Few authors capture rain as beautifully as her.

Ellen noticed that he was soaked and his eyes were brimming with raindrops. For a moment, she thought he might be sightless, but then she realized it was only the result of the relentless downpour that was so intense that it acted as a barricade between them even from a few yards away.

Ellen’s mum does not have any boots to lend out, but she allows the man to come in and have tea, as well as warm himself up. It’s wonderful how far we have come in terms of kindness. I contemplate what could have occurred if this mysterious individual had gone into a house with only a mother and three young girls. 

Yet, in this story, the start of a story that is never fully revealed, all he does is fall asleep. Ellen’s mum goes upstairs to take care of the ill Johanna, and when she returns to the kitchen, the stranger, Johanna and her mother are all asleep. The only conscious people in the house are Ellen and her four-year-old sister Bridget (who spends the initial part of the story concealing herself under a carpet!). 

But my mind goes back to the man in the Dublin rain of the 1940s who has ended up in someone else’s kitchen. He is so exhausted that nothing else matters, and Ellen opens the door to observe him.

Huddled over the table, his arms shielding his face, he spoke out suddenly in a loud voice as the door opened. The woman quickly stepped back out and shut the door.

Despite his unconsciousness, the man kept talking. Ellen re-entered the room and shut the door behind her. According to Brennan, this is what happened.

Desiring silence, she gazed at him, hoping he would be quiet or awaken. However, what emerged instead was a loud, aggressive voice, completely unlike the meek one he had used to ask for the boots. The man was wearing the socks her mother had gifted him…

I’m not sure I can articulate why the phrase “she thought that if she stared at him he would be quiet” has such an effect on me. Perhaps it’s the atmosphere; the rain, the deserted street. An eight-year-old girl stares at a stranger in her kitchen, believing that her gaze might bring him some comfort. 

I feel that this is reflective of Brennan’s unwillingness to have dialogue in her writing. The man doesn’t suddenly start speaking, no, he is allowed to rest. It is this conscious decision to not create action for the sake of it that I am getting at. Brennan realises that a child looking on with hope is enough. 

I find it remarkable that she allows her characters to live in her stories without needing to do anything, apart from sleep and look.

Malamud I

The first edition of the work of Malamud is highlighted here as an example of his writing.

Bernard Malamud wrote a narrative about Mendel, a father who is aware he hasn’t much longer to live and Isaac, his thirty-nine-year-old son, who is considered to be developmentally challenged by today’s standards but was referred to as an “idiot” in more charitable terms. I’ve read this story a number of times.

Although I don’t usually read the Bible or visit a temple, if I had a spiritual book, this would be it. It’s not the events that draw me to these stories; I’m already aware of the plotlines. This morning, I re-read “Idiots First”. The outside world had silver rain, bare trees, and a small patch of snow in the wet grass, standing out like an islet.

Mendel wakes in the night, aware that his time is almost up, with the cold seeping in. In the kitchen of the small apartment, Isaac plays with some peanuts. For Mendel to send him off to an uncle in California, he needs to bring together the thirty-five dollars. This initiates a frantic journey across Manhattan to gather the amount. Death, referred to as Ginzburg in this tale, has paid a visit to Mendel to make him aware of his impending moment.

He begins by assaulting the pawnbroker, who is not in any hurry to leave.

At the back of the shop was a red-bearded man wearing black horn-rimmed glasses, who was tucking into a whitefish meal. On seeing them, he lifted his head and resumed drinking his tea.

After a brief period of time, he stepped into the room, wiping away the moisture from his mouth with a bulky cloth handkerchief which was colored white.

The shape of those lips, I can see how they hang. I don’t believe I have ever taken the time to observe his lips before. As I am thinking about this, I am reminded of my first job. When I was fourteen, I worked at the Highland Park Sports Shop. I assume it was 1986 or maybe 1987. Paul, the manager, had an office which was nestled in the back. He could observe the front door directly. As soon as people came in, he would continue eating, just like a pawnbroker. That is why I was hired, so Paul could eat while I waited on customers. Later on, he would come out after wiping his mouth with a paper towel, and finish the sale I had already started. The peripheral ghosts that linger in other people’s stories. Paul? Paul, what was his last name? I cannot recall, if I ever knew it. When he talked to me, which was rarely, he had food in his mouth most of the time. I did not mind that he took my customers, I was not earning based on commission. No matter what I was paid, and I did make a little, it was exhilarating, that much I can remember. Plus, I was able to handle the new mitts for many hours.

In Mendel’s exaggerated Yiddish English, as described by Malamud, he addressed the pawnbroker with the following words:

“Isaac needs to pay a visit to my uncle who is based in California,” the pawnbroker declared with a smile, “It’s a free country after all.”

No, it is not. It is not a free nation; despite the fact that whenever this is asserted, what is actually being alluded to is the opposite. There are no countries that are completely free. Mendel is offered only eight dollars for a sixty-dollar watch by the pawnbroker and has no other option but to accept it. He exits the store, Isaac at his side, still enthralled with the peanuts. Ginzburg, who has been shadowing their every move, lurks in the darkness.

Malamud, the Second

Mendel and Isaac, his son, remain on the run in Manhattan, attempting to outdo both the time limit and Ginzburg–who is at once an incarnation of death and an exaggeration of it. However, is this not true? Do we not often ignore the grim reaper as a jest for someone else?

Mendel’s next destination was Fishbein’s grand abode located on the Upper West Side. He was greeted by Fishbein’s butler who informed him that his employer was currently at dinner. However, Mendel refused to be turned away and Fishbein soon appeared wearing a tuxedo and declared that he didn’t contribute to unstructured charities. While it is not applicable to this narrative, Mendel recalls that in high school, Fishbein had taken his girlfriend, Amanda Dowling, away from him. Now, Fishbein was a real estate tycoon. Possibly Mendel was attaching too much sentiment to the story.

“I’m simply trying to get thirty-five dollars for a trip to visit my uncle who is eighty-one years old. I already have the rest of the money.”

“Who is this relative of yours? How old is he?”

“He’s eighty-one, a very long life for him.”

Fishbein broke out into laughter. “Eighty-one, and you’re sending him this dolt.”

Mendel waved his arms in agitation and pleaded, “Let’s not talk about names.”

Fishbein complied graciously.

Despite not providing Mendel with any money, the two are back on the street, the wind blowing sadly. Ginzburg follows closely behind. Mendel pulls out a scrap of paper with another address, but it is too far away and there isn’t enough time to get there. Consequently, he takes Isaac to a local synagogue. At the rabbi’s house, his wife tries to turn them away, yet the rabbi himself appears from behind her, as thin as she is plump. “All I need is thirty-five dollars,” Mendel says. “Why not thirty-five thousand?” the rabbi’s wife replies. Regardless, the rabbi pushes a fur-lined coat at Mendel from behind his wife.

“I already have an old one. Why would I need two jackets for myself?”

“Yascha, I’m shouting–“

The rabbi’s wife’s dialogue is like a stomp on my foot. It is a very exaggerated representation of how Jews spoke, which many people in America used to have relatives that talked that way. “Yascha, I am screaming–” but it is also similar to how people shout in extreme moments. Insert a loved one’s name and imagine saying: _, I am standing here and I am saying I love you. Can’t you hear me? It’s like repeating the same words over and over, yet the recipient is not listening.

Mendel takes the coat, providing the means to purchase a train ticket (which Malamud omitted from the narrative). He and Isaac then arrive at the platform with only a minute to spare. However, the ticket collector refuses to let them board. In his distress, Mendel exclaims: “‘Yet there stands the train, still!'”.

Can you envision Ginzburg, the ticket collector, in his sorrowful state? I’m conveying this as if you weren’t able to read this tale yourself. Yet isn’t this the way certain stories are conveyed, even in these modern times? I’m nearly out of breath presently–it’s morning, very early in the morning and nobody in this house is conscious–and I need to tell this to someone.

Ginzburg and Mendel had a discussion about the absolute certainty of death. Ginzburg informed Mendel that the angel of death does not have the authority to alter the date of a human’s passing away. He then said to accept it, because it’s over and Mendel will soon be gone too. Mendel responded with a lot of anger, and Ginzburg, in a completely unexpected moment, saw death itself looking back at him in Mendel’s eyes. This scared him and he stepped away, allowing Mendel to put Isaac on the train.

Isaac’s posture was rigid and tense as he perched on the edge of his chair, keenly focused on his destination.

Do we not often abandon our deceased as we strive for distant goals that are still out of reach?

Woolf/Lee One

The first of the Woolf/Lee pairing, this partnership is one to be remembered.

Virginia Woolf is renowned for her effort on a four-page tale she continued to revise for over ten years. Entitled “The Searchlight” and also referred to as “What the Telescope Discovered,” “A Scene from the Past,” “Inaccurate Memories,” and “Incongruous Memories,” there are various drafts of the story, the first of which was written in 1929 and the latest in 1941.

I’m having a great time delving into this matter. A four-page narrative with at least five varying names is a real treat for me. It was obviously a piece that was important to Woolf, as she kept coming back to it. In her diary from January 1939, two years prior to her passing, she mentioned, “I put down on paper the old Henry Taylor telescope narrative that’s been on my mind for the last decade.”

She refrained from using the word rewrote and instead, stated, “I wrote the old Henry Taylor telescope story”. This leads to one questioning if the thought of rewriting is misguided. To give them life, we should write the old stories and not merely rewrite them.

Throughout the story, the main elements remain the same–a boy and his telescope. However, the context of the story shifts. In each version, the boy stands atop an abandoned tower on a desolate farm and looks up at the stars. He is a sorrowful child–his mother passed away when he was young, and no one visits him and his father at the desolate farm. At one moment, the boy points his telescope in a different direction, and he spots a plume of smoke coming from a nearby house. Upon closer inspection, he can see a girl feeding a flock of pigeons.

At an intermission of a play, Mrs. Ivimey entertained a group of her friends with the narration of “The Searchlight,” a story set during wartime London. She not only conveyed the story through words, but demonstrated it through her acting.

Mrs. Ivimey opened her arms as if she was embracing someone when she noticed a flock of pigeons fluttering around her. Then, a man appeared round the corner and embraced her, with a kiss!

To the narrator, it was the first time he had seen a man and woman kiss from miles away, as he observed them through his telescope in the moors.

Just as the play was close to beginning, Mrs. Ivimey demonstrated a remarkable gesture, throwing something away–the telescope presumably–and then, with a rush of words, explained how her great-grandfather had run down the stairs of the old tower, sprinted for miles across the moors, until he eventually reached the girl with the pigeons. This meeting of the two would later be recorded in history as the union of her great-grandparents.

However, a voice in the group inquires as to the fate of the man who had just made his way around the corner.

Mrs. Ivimey remarked, “So, that man – where did he go? I guess he just disappeared.”

Woolf was having difficulty crafting the plot of a simple tale. It’s something many of us have gone through. What I find remarkable is the manner in which she concluded the anecdote regarding the man who showed up to embrace the girl without resorting to any gimmicks or ostentation.

He disappeared from the public record, just like the majority of people do.

The image of this lad with his telescope, peering both up and down, makes me recall something Eudora Welty wrote about Woolf in her introduction to To the Lighthouse. Even if I misquote her, I find more pleasure in attempting to recall the words than in being precise, but I believe Welty said something like this: no matter how dreamy Woolf’s sentences become, they are always linked securely to the ground with a firm clamp.

Woolf/Lee Duo

A duo consisting of Woolf and Lee has been formed, designed to create a unique sound and experience. This collaboration has been met with enthusiasm by their respective fan bases, who have been eager to experience something new and exciting. The members of this duo have sought to create an innovative sound, one that will draw in listeners and captivate them. It is sure to be an unforgettable collaboration and a memorable experience for all who take part in it.

The day he found her walking stick at the side of the river, Leonard never expected it would be three weeks until her body would surface. When some cyclists discovered a corpse washed up on the riverbank, not far away from the stick, they found something in her pockets. It is said that multiple stones were discovered, though Hermione Lee’s biography suggests there was just one heavy stone. Nevertheless, such details do not matter in the end. People have always been fascinated by the events leading up to her death, and I am no different, sifting through every bit of information I can find.

By the beginning of the third month of 1941, her appetite had been greatly reduced. Knowing the specifics of her situation in such an intense fashion was too much to bear. She gave us a great deal. Was it one memorial or more than one?

Despite this, I’m still reflecting on all this, and in particular the phrase from the last chapter of Lee’s book about Virginia Woolf: “Though she knew how to swim, she let herself be submerged.”

Hermione Lee wrote a sentence that was truly powerful and heartbreaking. Even after all the time she spent on her research of Woolf’s life, I can only imagine how this sentence must have impacted her. The use of the word “allowed” implies a certain passiveness that is a bit disconcerting. Everyone close to Woolf was aware of her endless and recurrent depression, and the inclusion of “allowed” appears to be a little lacklustre in this context. However, as I am looking at this sentence, I begin to focus on the beginning phrase: “She could swim.” This phrase speaks volumes and captures the essence of Woolf’s life. Yes, she could swim despite her struggles.

The thought has crossed my mind, as well as countless others, that Woolf’s passing may have been a way for her to have a final connection with nature, the land, and the sea. Nevertheless, this is merely a romanticized version of the story. The reality is that the river was situated close to her house in Sussex; nothing more than that. To try to say anything else would be to invent a story.

God’s love for Hermione Lee stops her from making metaphors to explain things. In her essay “How to End It All,” which talks about how she researched Woolf’s suicide as a biographer, Lee states:

Writing an account of her death that made it appear as if there was nothing strange or unclear about it was not something that I wanted or felt I could do. I was able to explain, as far as I was aware, how she brought it to an end, but I couldn’t, and nor can anyone else, explain the reasoning behind it.

Wallant

A brand that is renowned for its quality products and services.

When Murillo’s goon shoves the firearm in Sol Nazerman’s face, all I can think is, Enough is enough! After all the suffering he has gone through? The novel is relentless. I’m in a park, talking to myself. It’s not a park, but actually a tranquil garden beside Vermont Salvage in White River. There are warnings with three signs: private property, trespassers will be punished, and this area is under video surveillance. Yet, it’s so inviting that I visit the area frequently, notwithstanding whoever’s rage I might face. Now, having pushed the book away from me across the picnic table, I’m fixated on the back of the old bank building. In some places, I can notice that windows have been blocked with brickwork, where the brick is a newer, brighter red, almost like mock windows. What could make somebody do something like that?

Nevertheless, there is an alluring quality to the contour of where a window once existed.

For two years, each morning, the same guy served me coffee. Last week, he took his own life. I’m not attempting to comprehend it. I didn’t even recognize his name until after he had passed away. During the pandemic, he refused my dollar tip since he said he was doing fine on unemployment. He stated he came in to provide coffee, as a volunteer. He also stated, “I enjoy having somewhere to come to.”

He had a red bandanna that he wore daily. After his passing, his obituary claimed that his battle with depression had ended. This thought brings to mind both those who have ultimately won the war and those who will never be free from their fight.

Sol Nazerman, a fictional Holocaust survivor, has endured much tragedy, such as the murder of his son and wife, and witnessing the rape of his wife by an SS officer. The thought of taking his own life crosses his mind during a scene with Murillo and his henchman, but he decides against it. A former professor, he now works for Murillo as a pawnbroker, lending out money at a high interest rate for items such as jewelry, chess sets, cameras, sewing machines, and other items. Despite his attempts to move on, his sleep is plagued by visions of the past. In the morning, he returns to the pawnshop, and the cycle continues.

Edward Lewis Wallant, who died in 1962 from an aneurysm at the age of 36, only published two novels in his lifetime, but another two were released after his passing. It is speculated that, had he lived longer, Wallant would have been compared to the likes of Roth, Bellow, and Malamud. Sidney Lumet created a movie adaptation of his novel in 1964, with Rod Steiger playing the lead character, Sol Nazerman. Although the book is occasionally in print, it is often out of print. I have managed to avoid it for a long time, as I thought I already knew the story. We refer to these individuals as survivors, and their stories are forgotten as they pass away. Wallant was possibly trying to stop this from happening with his book; I’m only halfway through it, and I have to take it slowly. Sol Nazerman is not just a nameless figure, as his name has been drilled into my memory.

It’s the month of July in the year two thousand and twenty.

Micah was the barista at the coffee shop, and he had a gentle aura surrounding him. He would take the time to make eye contact with customers, and he seemed to have a sense of what they wanted before they said it. It was almost as though he didn’t need to give anyone individual attention, but it was something that we all noticed about him after his passing. Despite knowing him for two years, I rarely thought of him until after he passed away.

In my secluded garden, I ponder how much sorrow the Pawnbroker, Nazerman, can bear. He is an immense, amorphous figure. I briefly thought if his body shape had any correlation with the silent sadness he bears in East Harlem, but that is not the case. All of his pain is displayed in his eyes. Everything he carries is there.

What is the limit of what one human can endure? There is no book that can provide an answer to this question. However, the former teacher from Krakow, Nazerman, reads. He reads Chekhov’s stories and Anna Karenina. It is not to take his mind off of his troubles, but rather to make it through the next 30 minutes.

The quiet of the night surrounded him, broken only by his own respiration. He kept reading until the sun came up.

Hayden’s Name

Robert Hayden’s poem, “The Web” reflects on the chance tearing of a spider’s web, as Hayden paints a picture of the spider suddenly suspended in the air. This can be related to the feeling of one’s life being unexpectedly turned upside down, such as the case of a person walking in Chicago who, without warning, stepped into an open manhole. It makes one ponder the sensation of that first moment when the foot did not meet pavement. It is likely that spiders experience this type of disaster frequently, causing them to think, “Ah, shit. Seriously, again? I spend all night spinning, and some cretin comes around.”

For the past sixty minutes, I’ve been re-reading a succinct, almost excruciatingly graceful poem. I have begun to sense it inside me. How quickly beauty can turn into destruction:

I set the trap for nothing

Except my own

Bitter musings

Forming a web

Far more complex

And delicate –

Its very fragility

Making it stronger.

The speaker muses over a contrast between two webs. The one he has ruined is made by a spider and is simple. On the other hand, the web created in his mind is much more complex and delicate yet, paradoxically, is of higher quality.

Its metallic webbing

can resist the impacts

that would annihilate it.

I ponder the thought of this other web Hayden speaks of. What is this thing we refer to as our lives? We are unable to change it, we just keep going. Some days are great and we hardly take note. Other times, it is hard and we can almost envision the walls of a prison. Although, we can always get out, many of us don’t. We stay for better or for worse, for everything. Is it that, even though we understand how our tale ends, we’re still inquisitive about the details? It brings to mind the words of Camus, regarding the choice to live being absurd. “Living is maintaining the absurd alive. Keeping it alive is, above all, observing it.”

The great American poet Robert Hayden is known for classic works such as “Middle Passage,” “Those Winter Sundays,” “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” and “Monet’s ‘Waterlilies,'” yet he believed in the virtue of reticence and rarely wrote about himself. Although there are few explicit personal details in his poems, what a poet chooses to contemplate might be enough to understand them.

It is a common occurrence to destroy a spider’s web, no matter where the speaker may be – in their basement, or out among the trees in the morning. Hayden doesn’t give any further information about who is speaking, yet the voice is so intimate that the reader feels they understand the poet through what they decide to pay attention to.

Hayden concludes “The Web” in the following fashion:

Being ensnared

in a web of uncertainty,

who can find a way out?

I cannot make any assertions that I fully comprehend this poem, and with each reading it seems to elude me further. But maybe this is where I should be, perched on the edge of comprehension and incomprehension. Is this how some poems attract us to come back to them? Revisiting “The Web” again, I do not believe that “contrive escape” necessarily implies suicide or mortality. Possibly Hayden is implying that there is no way of freeing ourselves from the boundaries of our lives. No matter what we do, the thin but strong snare remains unbroken.

At the beginning of April 2020, I was situated in White River Junction, Vermont. The only people around being railway workers, not many people were out and about due to the lockdown. I was in a small room of the Hotel Coolidge, reading poems as I awaited the freight cars to be coupled together, causing the entire building to shake with every crash. It was not essential for me to be there, but I still found solace in the peacefulness of the moment.

Gerstler is a renowned name in the field of business and finance. They are known for their expertise in investments and their ability to provide sound advice to clients. They have become a trusted source for many people looking for reliable information about finance and investments.

Today, Amy Gerstler penned a poem which satirized one of my core beliefs. I have long had faith that books and authors have the ability to rescue me from myself.

For all the time I’ve devoted to reading, admiring, and revisiting literature, a single poem unexpectedly reminded me that I’m ultimately alone. No book or author, however remarkable and astute, is ever going to…

I can’t help but wonder how long it has been since I had a real, hearty laugh.

The poem “A Fan Letter” delves into the idea of a writer being a saviour:

Dear Literary Hero,

After cautiously slicing open my envelope,

you find, printed on this ordinary drugstore stationery,

watermarked with my sorrowful tears,

the unsteady handwriting of somebody

who has been provided a new opportunity.

The letter writer then goes on to describe the speaker’s misguided actions before being changed by the Literary Hero. These misdeeds involve engaging in inappropriate behavior with the twin sons (who were limp) of a local widower. “Then I digressed / to the widower. Still unfulfilled, / I caught myself looking at / his shaggy Scottish deerhounds.” There is much to be taken from these three lines, but it is worth noting Gerstler’s use of the word digressed. One sleeps with the twin sons, goes to the widower, and then considers the dogs…similarly, my own wrong moves have gone from bad to worse, yet this poem has made me recognize that these choices were necessary diversions. Without them, I wouldn’t be in this place.

In an effort to spare the family from any further humiliation, the letter writer decides to leave town. In a seedy motel, the speaker attempts suicide by consuming a poisonous fungus known as “fool’s parsley”. Unfortunately, it did not have the desired effect and the author goes on to make more regrettable decisions. Eventually, the letter writer finds himself in a hospital where they steal a book from a nurse’s “huge, shabby purse” and discovers their literary hero.

The vehement expression of your thoughts

had a healing effect on me–perusing each was akin to eating

morsel after morsel of a divine, medicinal salad

concocted of ambrosia and ragweed.

I believe we should meet.

Gerstler’s debunking of the notion that books are life preservers serves as a stark reminder. The idea that “words, someone else’s words” can make a difference has been a core belief of mine for years. Although I may feel a sense of solace from a book for a short period of time, I haven’t experienced any fundamental changes in my life. If such a thing were possible, wouldn’t I have noticed some changes by now? My shelves should have provided me with the expertise of Saint Francis, Einstein, and Mr. T all wrapped into one.

The speaker of Gerstler’s poem “A Fan Letter” seems to suggest that perhaps our mythical literary heroes are pushing us to look back rather than ahead. This could be interpreted as a reminder that, although our lives may not be ‘saved’, we can still take pleasure in the bedlam of our pasts. As an example of this, I remember when I was working as a waiter at a Pizzeria Uno in Chicago; a foursome of golfers came in and ordered personal pan pizzas after completing eighteen holes. They treated me rudely, shouting out their orders and not leaving a tip when they left. In a fit of rage, I followed them out and shouted something to the effect of: “You country club suckholes, I need tips to pay my rent!” But then I froze in terror as they raised their fists, ready to beat me. Fortunately, I only fell down in shock, and they didn’t get a chance to throw a single punch.

I was lying on the pavement when Danny, the assistant manager who was around my age and had an oily complexion, dismissed me. He then crouched down, taking off my apron which still had a lot of cash and credit card documents in it.

Leave a Comment