30 August 2007

The Past Regained

Soul Train: Poussin's Dance

When I first came to London, 30 summers ago, the city seemed jolly and welcoming, and it still does. But it also seemed small and manageable, and that illusion has been shattered every time I’ve returned. I now understand that my tourist’s eye view of London was confined to Westminster and Knightsbridge, but London sprawls like Houston or Los Angeles. Starting sometime in the eighteenth century, each generation felt compelled to build its own variation of the row house, and then to replicate it with numbing conformity across a whole area. I expect that, if one flew over London at the proper altitude, the view would resemble the patchwork fields of the agricultural Midwest of the U.S. Some of the row houses have their charm, it must be said, not least because they remind me of (depending) Upstairs, Downstairs or Monty Python sketches, and nicer neighborhoods are interrupted by tiny, tree-dotted squares and crescents that hearken timidly back to the traditional English village common.

But didn’t anybody ever want to build anything that didn’t resemble his neighbor’s house? It’s a wonder that anybody ever finds his way in this town: schoolchildren must leave home with notes pinned to them, like Paddington Bear. And I marveled at the ability of my intrepid host, Joshua White, to drive anywhere without consulting a map. Or an astrolabe. Or a psychiatrist. On the wrong side of the road, no less.

The principal reason for my visit was a reunion with Carlene Klein Ginsburg, who taught me French and who brought me to Europe for that first visit. We’d lost touch immediately after the last time we set eyes on each other, when she got married and moved away to Lubbock, Texas, 29 years ago. That’s a lifetime ago — I have friends who are younger than 29, and Carlene now has two adult children who, need it be said, did not exist when I last saw her. One hardly knew what to expect.

For she was, in her youth, a wonder: I can’t remember a time she wasn’t smiling, and her energy at the ripe age of 24 could and did exhaust her teenage students. To say that she made French fun (and funny) is not to suggest that she wasn’t a rigorous grammarian. But how else to explain that she made the language come alive for us? And not only the language. She presided over my first explorations of French culture even before she brought me to this country, as I sampled Molière and boeuf Wellington and the songs of Claude François. Some of these tastes I did grow out of (although I’ve had Clo-clo’s “Chanson populaire” ringing in my head for two days — please make it stop), but they were a start in the right direction. Thus her influence on me was vast and enduring.

But she exerted it many years ago. Surely time had changed her — dulled her lustre, dimmed and diminished her exuberance.

And God knows what time has done to me. When we agreed, by telephone, to meet near Covent Garden, we took care to specify what we’d be wearing.

I’d have known her in an instant. In fact, I did know her, the instant I saw her, from across the street, as she stood there in her jean jacket and red T-shirt. She looked up and saw me, and there was the inimitable smile. Her hair is greyer, but of a similar cut, and her figure is as trim as ever. It may safely be said that the worst time has done is to afford her too little time to practice her French. (Or too much time to practice her Spanish?)

A long way from Lubbock:
Carlene serves guacamole in London

The nature of a student–teacher relationship is a curious blend of proximity and distance. I doubt that many students have any idea that their teachers are intimately familiar with every corner of their secret souls, particularly in cases where the teacher reads the student’s writing. I didn’t realize this fully until I had the opportunity to teach, at Columbia. Moreover, I discovered that a teacher’s household knows plenty, too, about the students: I used to pass especially good and bad essays to my roommate, Beth, and I began to understood why, on those occasions when I’d meet the spouse of a teacher, there’d often be a flash of recognition. “Oh — you’re Bill Madison.”

A student knows a teacher, too, and intimately, but through a process of intuition more than exposition. Rare (and doomed) is the teacher who opens up her personal life in detail or who confides in her teenage students. But a kid who’s paying attention can start to figure out a few things, and by the end of a semester or two, he may know a teacher’s character, he can predict her moods and, often, her tastes.

Sometimes bonds are forged from such matter. Two of my students from Columbia, Kara Lack and Tamboura Gaskins, have become my good friends over time, at first perhaps simply because we share an interest in writing, the subject I taught them. Nobody was ever more serious about writing than those two girls, and it became increasingly clear that we were kindred spirits. We still are.

Because French was an elective course in my high school, there was reason to suspect that Carlene and I were, in at least that lone tiny way, kindred spirits: I wouldn’t have been studying French if I weren’t interested in it, and presumably she wouldn’t have learned it if she hadn’t wanted to. (It’s a separate question, however, whether she wanted to learn it merely in order to share it with a roomful of unruly, pimply, suburban nimrods. Vocation helps, I guess.) Carlene had seen much of Europe already by 1977, and lived in Spain and Switzerland, so there was evidence of shared interests and tastes in that, too.

Now, a lifetime later, we discovered points in common at which we’d never guessed, and rediscovered points we’d known and (in some cases) forgotten. Among these were books and movies we’d admired, joys and sorrows we’d known, journeys we’d undertaken: somehow, by following two very different paths, Carlene and I arrived at places that were, if not identical, then linked.

Perhaps most pleasing was finding out how Jewish we both are. Carlene really is Jewish, and I’d known that, but I hadn’t anticipated how closely she’d resemble a savvy Upper West Side New Yorker — the woman lived in Lubbock, for Pete’s sake — and surely she didn’t expect me to know any Yiddish. She attributed this to my years in New York, but in truth my best friend in seventh grade, Laurence Zakson, wanted to be a rabbi and used me as a guinea-pig Hebrew student: I knew several words and phrases already when I was in Carlene’s class. But when you’re trying to learn French, somehow your most haymish vocabulary doesn’t really come up.

We spent much of Wednesday creating our own sunshine in the driving London rain, running up and down the sidewalks in a state of hilarity that recalled the visit 30 years before. On Friday, Carlene invited Joshua and me to dinner at her flat, which is enormous, where at long last I met her husband Richard, the man who whisked her out of my life. And he turns out to be a bona-fide mensch who — yes, I can admit it — deserves to be married to this fantastic woman. He’s smart, he’s as sensible as he is sensitive, and he cares about the right things. Carlene served homemade guacamole and about 18 other starters, followed by bangers and mash, and butternut squash, which I haven’t even seen, much less sampled, anywhere else in Europe. Then came not one but two desserts, and the insistence that we take home plenty of leftovers: at school we used to call her Maman, as a joke, but now she really is a mom.

The next night we were invited out again, to a townhouse on the Isle of Dogs — which I didn’t even know existed — to celebrate the marriage of Kara Lack’s brother Jeremy and his bride Erica. Since Jeremy and Erica were married in New York, last March, this was the first chance their London friends had to celebrate with them, and for this august occasion, Kara and her husband, Konrad, flew in from the States.

I’d never seen Kara outside the New York city limits, and only once outside Manhattan, and I knew it would be a treat to see her in a different context. Yet the context was not so different, after all: she was surrounded by her London gang of people as funny and interesting as those I’d find in a party at her own home. (It must be noted, however, that her hosts, the gorgeous Rosina and H, have four terraces — count ’em — whereas Kara’s home has only one.) Rosie and H welcomed me as if I’d known them forever, and soon enough, I had. Not for the first time, Kara’s friends became my friends, and as I considered the kindness and brilliance of all these people, I realized yet again how fortunate I am that Kara numbers me among them. Honestly, if you put all of us in a lineup, I’d stick out: join me now in a chorus of “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others.” God knows what she sees in me.

Now available in London: Kara Lack

But I was reminded of what I see in her, when the almost-familiar setting showed its true and exotic colors. For there was Kara, serene and lovely, beneath a moon as full and rich as Devon cream, with the Thames gliding gently beside us. The microcosm became the macrocosm: was it the moonlight or Kara’s own radiance that sparkled on the surface of the water? I don’t know. But it was an extraordinary image, and though I didn’t photograph it, I hope I’ll remember it always.

It was a fine time, and I was struck by the patterns and themes that ran through the week, almost as if it were a book and not my life: teachers and students; fabulous homes (Joshua and Fraser’s new place is great, too); cool couples; friends who not only put up with me but who put me up.

And again and again, the theme of the passage of time. Thirty years since I first came to Europe. Thirty-one years since I first met Carlene. Seventeen years since I met Kara. Sixteen years since I met Joshua. And I have fallen in and out of love, in and out of jobs, traveled the world and come back again, slept in castles and on other people’s couches. I have made friends and lost them or kept them — or rediscovered them — and very often I’ve done so among the unchanging monuments of London.

Time has moved, not like a river but like a dance, irregular and exhausting, and on this trip I got to see Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time at the Wallace Collection. The painting inspired Anthony Powell’s eponymous novel, one of my favorites and a cornerstone of my friendship with Kevin Pask, who forced me to read it, when I was still Carlene’s student. I thought I’d seen the picture before, but now I’m not sure. For it turns out to be very small, and you have to study it to pick out all the details and understand them. It took Powell twelve volumes to match it.

Even for a seventeenth-century allegory, it’s a complex image. I suspect that, shortly before the old angel at the right of the painting stops playing his lyre, before Apollo’s chariot has traversed the sky, before the left-hand cherub’s bubble bursts and the right-hand cherub’s hourglass runs out, the dancers will fall in a heap. They have been dancing for centuries, and they are tired already. As Powell noted, you can see they’re not even dancing the same steps. I used to think they represented the Seasons, or Apollo and three Graces, in which case the guy in the flying chariot would be Helios — but no. They are Work and Pleasure, Prosperity and Poverty. Will they be laughing and happy, as I am after a good dance? Will Apollo’s sister rise to shine on them, as she rose to shine on Kara? Will the dance begin again?

These things, the painting doesn’t tell us. No matter how hard we look.