Briefly Noted

I am reading Memories of Chekhov edited by Peter Sekirin. It is not a biography, or an autobiography but rather the recollections of the many people who knew Chekhov during his relatively short life-- he died from tuberculosis when he was only 44. The book recounts his early life from the members of his close and large family. He was described as outgoing, friendly, well-read and eager to pass along writing suggestions to the aspiring writers who knew him. One friend wrote that Chekhov was “a thin tall man with a fine, dark beard…who seemed to me a very joyful and happy young man.” Another recalled that “he was a very graceful, proud and tender man.” The book is a delightful account of a fascinating individual.

In a moving tribute to his wife, Iris Murdoch, John Bailey writes about their early life together and her gradual descent into the ravages of Alzheimer’s. He says: Alzheimer’s is, in fact, like an insidious fog, barely noticeable until everything around has disappeared. After that, it is no longer possible to believe that a world outside fog exists. It begins with forgetting words. Iris is talking or lecturing and then comes to a thought that she can’t find the word for. Sentences are not always completed. They start and then stop in mid-stream. Bayley comments, When writing about the onset of Alzheimer’s, it is difficult to remember a sequence of events—what happened when, in what order. There are 5 million people in the United States who have Alzheimer’s. And while much has been written about the neurophysiology of the disease, little is known about what it is like to experience it. Anyone who tries to write about it is limited by the fact that they are either beset with it or are only able to observe how the stricken person behaves.

Hemingway is most often associated with Spain, Cuba and France, but he visited Italy frequently and wrote about it often. He first spent time there during World War I when he volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver. Then again in Venice after World War II, where he went duck hunting in the Venice Lagoon and wrote Across the River and Into the Trees at the Locanda Cipriani on the island of Torcello. Richard Owen’s Hemingway in Italy reminded me of the times I have visited those places and the good times I have had there. “If the Italian landscape, from the Venetian lagoons and marshes to the Dolomites as well as Liguria and Sicily, had a profound effect on him, so too did the Italian people – not just the aristocrats he came to know so well in Venetian high society, but also the ordinary Italians he came across, from soldiers, drivers and waiters to lace makers and hunters.”

Shortly before he died, David Hume wrote a short summary of his life and works. In My Own Life, he writes about his youth, family and especially his mother who devoted herself entirely to rearing and educating her children. What a difference that can make! From time to time he traveled to France to write and edit his books that were not well received initially. Late in life he suffered from gastrointestinal problems that led to his death. Although in some pain, he confessed, “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits…” My Own Life ends with a moving eulogy by his friend and fellow writer, Adam Smith.


To The Back of Beyond

Not everything you did had a reason. Peter Stamm

After a summer vacation in Spain, Astrid and Thomas and their two young children return to their home in Switzerland. They unpack their bags, have a light dinner and Astrid puts the children to bed. Afterwards the couple relax with a glass of wine outside on their garden terrace.

When Astrid goes back inside to console one of the children, Thomas gets up, goes to the garden gate, unlatches it and begins walking. He continues to walk through the night, the next day and night and continues walking through the hills, valleys and villages of Switzerland.

This is how Peter Stamm’s latest novel To the Back of Beyond begins and continues until the last page. The book alternates in short sections between Astrid’s thoughts and Thomas’ experiences. Astrid tries to explain to the children what has happened to Thomas. Thomas struggles to get by during cold winter days and nights in Switzerland.

Initially Thomas walks only at night so he won’t be recognized by anyone who might know him. As he walks further away from his village, he is more likely to walk during the day as well. Astrid contacts the police to report Thomas is missing. Even with trained search dogs, they have no luck in finding him.

Meanwhile Thomas takes on short term jobs, earns a little money, sleeps in hostels or someone’s hayloft and then moves on. One day he takes out a fair amount of cash from his bank account, goes to a recreational store to buy camping equipment and clothing with his credit card. But these records are no help to the police, as he disappears once again.

Astrid tells the children he has gone on a long business trip and the boss of the business where he works that he has shingles and won’t be able to come back for several months.

Large segments of time go by, their two children grow into adults, graduate from college, are married now with their own families. They have largely forgotten about Thomas. But Astrid hasn’t, she imagines he will return, hears the garden gate open and thinks it is him, carries on as best she can.

Nothing much happens in this novel, there is little we know about Astrid or Thomas, the village where they live, their daily life, except what we can infer from the few details Stamm provides. It is difficult to know what he is trying to convey.

To the Back of Beyond reads like a mystery with countless questions that seek answers. Why does Thomas leave what to all appearances is a contented family, marriage and social condition? What is he running away from? Where is he headed? Why does he leave to wander among the hills of Switzerland?

In spite of its simple plot and little action, I found the novel captivating, read it quickly, and regretted it ended without the slightest resolution of its many questions.


Every Third Thought

Every third thought shall be my grave. Shakespeare, The Tempest

Robert McCrum is an English writer, associate editor of the Sunday Observer and former editor-in-chief of Faber & Faber publishers. In 1995 at the age of 42, he suffered a severe stroke that paralyzed his right side and impaired his speech. In time, he recovered but realized he had to adjust to a slower pace of life.

However, a few years ago (19 years after his stroke) he had a very bad fall. Again, he survived but realized he was now entering “life’s endgame.” His new book, Every Third Thought, is an exploration of his own mortality, as well as the thoughts of others—writers, physicians, psychotherapists, and neuroscientists.

McCrum discusses the multiple effects of old age, the failing brain, the horrors of Alzheimer’s, cancer, how we die and the curse of falling in our later years. “That fall can be a gateway to incapacity and decrepitude.”

He writes: The remorseless passage of time, and the unwelcome intrusion of physical frailty, must finally confront everyone with the same inevitable reckoning. The endgame is also about finding late-life criteria for day-to-day conduct, and becoming reconciled to the loss of early-life ambitions. You might feel thirty-five, but it makes sense to behave as if you are actually closer to seventy.

How true that is, how often I feel that way, the desires that I can no longer fulfill. You reach a point in your life when you are unable to do the things you used to. And that isn’t easy to accept. And, yet, he notes that Oliver Sacks was strikingly calm just before his death writing, “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

He cites the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine who wrote, He who lives well, dies well, he who lives ill, dies ill. And he turns to Montaigne, who said,” It is not death, it is dying that alarms me.”

Toward the end of Every Third Thought, McCrum made a list of “Dos and Dont's" There are only three: 1. Try to keep fit. 2. Accept your fate/insignificance. 3. Live in the moment. Not easy to follow, are they, especially when you are in considerable pain?

Every Third Thought is not a grim book, but it’s surely not for everyone. I imagine you need to be approaching the endgame or caring for a one who is, to fully appreciate it.


Greene on Capri

Autumn is upon us now and I have the good fortune and the time to reread some of my favorite books. A few are about writers who have been to some of the places in Italy where I have visited in summer’s past. Shirley Hazzard spent many years in Italy, wrote several books about her time there, including Greene on Capri (where Greene refers to Graham Greene).

She writes about the meals she and her husband shared with Greene, the books and writers they discussed, some of whom (Henry James, Rilke, Norman Douglas, etc.) were also part-time residents of Capri. And, as always, it is a pleasure reading the pages of Shirley Hazzard’s books. From the Archives, here’s a slightly edited version of what I wrote about Greene on Capri.

One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand.
Graham Greene

For anyone who values humanistic traditions, reading the works of Shirley Hazzard is intellectually refreshing. As Geordie Williamson wrote (The Australian, 3/25/16) in a review of her essays, (We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think), an “antiquated world view comes roaring back into view.”

I have found this to be true in all of Hazzard’s books that I’ve read including most recently Greene on Capri. In this short memoir, she recalls the friendship she and her husband, the Flaubert scholar, Francis Steegmuller had with Greene when they were visiting the island of Capri. Greene owned a house there and together they met frequently for lunch and dinner at a restaurant Greene liked.

For the most part, they talked about literature, the books and authors they had read. These conversational rambles during their long meals and walks constitute the heart of the book and bring alive their mutual joy in reading and writing.

Hazzard writes, “Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a life time to the rational as well as the fantastic.”

Greene on Capri
is not meant to be a complete portrait of Greene but from time to time Hazzard does reflect on his personality. In The Man Within, Greene wrote: “Always while one part of him spoke, another part stood on one side and wondered, Is this I who am speaking? Can I really exist like this?” Hazzard comments:

“I think that Graham was not simply made up of two persons. Rather, that he gave rein to disparate states of mind as they successively possessed him, putting these to service in his work…with years, however, it had come to prevail for its own sake as a mood of defiance, directed against the tedium of rational existence.”

Elsewhere she notes how little Greene valued contentment “…pleasure could not be an assumption and was not a goal; whereas suffering was a constant, and almost a code of honour. Suffering was the attestable key to imaginative existence.”

Is suffering where writers really belong, what they need to experience in order to write fiction? If we can believe Hazzard, it was for Greene. However, I doubt it is necessary for most writers but perhaps it is why many of them become alcoholics.

In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Lang explores the reasons why some authors were destroyed by excessive drinking. She writes: [Eugene] O’Neill had a terrible problem with alcohol. Most writers do. American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.



Memory is a willful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know. Elliot Perlman

Alan Lightman’s novel, Reunion, is a meditation on memory and its limitations. We are introduced to a 52-year old Charles who teaches literature at a small liberal arts college. He lives alone in a comfortable house that his ex-wife left him after their divorce.

Out of the blue, he decides to attend his 30th college reunion, where, in the midst of meeting his former classmates, he begins to recall his first passionate love affair with an aspiring ballerina, Juliana. These recollections form the bulk of the novel.

Charles muses often about youth. “Could I ever have been that young? Not a wrinkle in my forehead. Not a crease around the eyes. A thick scalp of hair, broad shoulders, erect posture. Flat lean stomach. It makes me want to cry.”

But how much of what he recalls was true or happened in the way he remembered it? Charles begins to confront the vagaries of memory. Did he really skip classes to take the bus to New York to visit Juliana? Did he actually sleep with her one night? Did she simultaneously carry on an affair with a college professor? Or has he made all of it up with the passage of time?

“How pitiful his life suddenly seems compared to hers. Her life is so simple, focused on one single thing. His mind is filled with uncertainty, hers seems to be certain. He tries to make beauty with words, she creates beauty with her body.”

Reunion reminds the reader that the way we reconstruct the past may not be all that reliable, especially for those experiences that retain an emotional impact. At times they seem veridical, at other times, contradictory and then again, more dream-like than anything else

Do you recall your first love? And how much of what you recall in fact happened? I do very vividly recall my college love. It was to be my last, as she is now my wife and has been for almost 60 years.

Occasionally we talk about those days and how she remembers them is not always the way I do. She may also recall an experience I have completely forgotten about and she has also forgotten much of what I recall. And both of us recall experiences that neither of us believe occurred in just that way.

In The Missing Shade of Blue, Jennie Erdal wrote: “Memory is a slippery customer…And in no time at all and with no evil intent, the truth turns into a kind of fiction.”

Yes, the mystery of memory, the elusiveness of memory, the necessity of memory. Without it, what would we be?