“A foreword to the reader is an afterword to the author,” Anthony Burgess says in the foreword of his autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God. “The author knows what has been written, the reader has yet to find out. The author. . .sometimes stands at the threshold which the foreword is, biting his nails and wondering whether a brief warning, an apology for inadequacy or excess, an avowal of mediocrity where he had intended brilliance, might not be a courteous gesture to the person who has had the kindness to at least pick up his book.”
My review of Burgess’s book can be found in a collection from Subterranean Press, In Other Words, 2006. Now here is another collection, offered with the same hesitations.
Why Reading Backwards? Because many of these essays were written some time ago – years, some of them – and my reading of them in preparation for this volume was a trip into the past, and into the thoughts and opportunities for thought that arose in those times. The farthest back among these essays is (I believe) a review of the New York Review Books reissue of three novels by Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica, The Fox in the Attic, and The Wooden Shepherdess. That was 2005, otherwise known as “long ago.” Then in 2006 was the Branigin Lecture for the Institute for Advanced Study at Indiana University, from which I graduated in 1964 and had only once before returned. The lecture happened to fall on my birthday; I was 63. The essay on the work of photographer Rosamond Purcell (Metamorphoses: Rosamond Purcell) came that year also.
It was my misfortune to be able to write more than one piece, for more than one venue, about my friend Thomas M. Disch: a misfortune because they were memorials, composed after Tom died, on July 4th, 2008. Re-reading and retouching one of these brought back the grief – and the pleasures – of that friendship.
A different sort of history encompasses essays written for the unique and beautiful journal Lapham’s Quarterly. Christopher Beha, in 2008 an editor at the Quarterly, was a follower of my fiction, and had written a fine survey of the Ægypt series in BookForum (2007). It was he who convinced Lewis Lapham, the Quarterly’s founder and publisher, to solicit a piece from me. The first here collected was submitted in 2009 and called by me “A Few Moments in Eternity” but by Lapham “In the Midst of Death”. (My most recent, “A Hero of a Thousand Dreams,” appeared in the December 2018, and is here as well.)
From Lapham’s Chris Beha moved to Harper’s (where Lewis had long been editor). At his invitation I wrote “Madame and the Masters” (2012), a review of a biography of Madame Blavatsky and a favorite of mine among these pieces. When in 2015 I had to withdraw for health reasons from a semester’s teaching at Yale (and the concomitant salary) I called Chris to ask if there were any openings for another article I could do. He told me that in fact he was on the point of calling me, to ask if I would take on the opening essay in the magazine, long titled “The Easy Chair”, doing alternate months with Rebecca Solnit. This delightful gig lasted well past my recovery and return to Yale. All those I wrote are here under their own heading.
Which brings this collection of essays out of the past and about up to the present, where – of course – they have been all along. In re-reading them I have corrected and added a sentence or two to a few, but there is no particular value in your reading them in time order, as I did. Observant readers will note some authorial repetition – smart remarks and considered opinions traveling from one piece to others, only noticeable when, as here, the pieces are collected. I have also for certain pieces restored my original version rather than the edited version that appeared in print; they don’t differ very much but somehow I prefer my own.
My thanks are owed to William Sheehan for his curating and all other help; to Bill Shafer, publisher; and above all to the reader, whose kindness in picking up the book may be rewarded with a certain measure of interest and possibly delight. But that’s not for me to say.
TO THE PROSPECTIVE READER, UPON OPENING THIS BOOK
Books, unlike some other modes of communication, require no instructions for use. It’s one of the reasons they’ve lasted so long. But a note as to why this book is perhaps worth a reader’s attention might be welcome.
There are writers who form a style early on and apply it to what interests them. As their interests change or new ones develop, the style adapts but doesn’t necessarily need to change; even radically different fictional situations and plots can be well served by the writer’s refined and updated (but not necessarily reformed) style. Such writers can often be recognized in a single sentence: I think I could recognize any Thomas Pynchon sentence in the context of no context.
Then there are the chameleons of fiction writing, whose verbal and story-telling styles change with the subjects they alight on. Such writers are less likely to be identifiable in a single sentence extracted from their work; instead of the sturdy and dependable style, adaptable to any circumstance, there is a restless search for a proper coloration — that is, finding a way for the matter of the story to produce the language appropriate to it, as the mythical chameleon is colored by the background on which it rests and not the other way around.
You will already be thinking that I count myself in the second category, and I believe a reading of this collection will bear that out, even if the whole isn’t read (though the whole will certainly demonstrate it). The chameleon mode doesn’t involve just phrases or sentences; it can be seen in the deployment of time, how events are contained within the recounting of other events, past moments recalled that shape present moments and even endings — what might be called reader-writer relations, a form of diplomacy, in which readers are self-selected by the work if the work is inviting enough to them. Fiction doesn’t need to be a conversation — most of Beckett can’t be said to be — but the chameleon style almost has to be. In this collection readers may choose conversations that reflect the ordinary circumstances of ordinary lives in the approximate present (Mount Auburn Street, in three parts) or the first-person — invented — memory story (The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines) or the fantasy-history couched in language flavored by the time-period (Flint and Mirror) or the tenderly metafictional This Is Our Town. Two or three brief joke stories that each require a language (In the Tom Mix Museum, The Million Monkeys of M. Borel, And Go Like This) might form a tasting menu reflecting the chameleon method I am describing. In any case, I am confident (or vain) enough to think that almost any reader will find one or two things here that touch or amuse, and — the utmost hope — are remembered long after.