The New Criterion (April 2010)
on the revival of
Dorothy Parker's poetry
(& what happens when editors sue)
The bullet-holes were real, but when the staircase was painted they were not closed up but picked out again; the stain in the cupboard was made freshly every now and then by Paul with blood from the kitchen; and one day...he beckoned me out into the garden and showed me what he had in its hand, the skull. It was gruesome, with its eye-sockets and long cheekbones...He had to shut Rita and Rex in the kennel or they would have dug it up at once; he buried it under the urn in the middle of the flowerbed and with it put a piece of raw liver. 'Le pourboire,' he said and laughed again.
One day Paul said, "J'avais une p'tite soeur.""A little sister?" By then Hester was beginning to understand."Une mulâtre," said Paul carelessly, and, seeing we did not understand that either, he said "Une négresse," and showed half on his finger."Negro? But you are not mulat... what you called it," we said, puzzled, and asked, "Where is she, your sister?"Paul shrugged."Don't you know?"He shook his head. "Elle a disparu."..."Morte?" I asked sympathetically."Perdue," said Paul, "Pssts," and he made as if to throw something away."But you don't lose sisters." Paul's silence said clearly that you did. We felt dizzy.
She [Joss] would not undress with me any more, and I was glad because my pinkness was still distressingly straight up and down while she had a waist now, slim and so supple I could not help watching it, and curves that tapered to long slim legs, while her breasts had swelled. I knew how soft these were and that they were tender, for once, out of curiosity, I touched them and she had jumped and sworn at me... "Is Joss beautiful?" I asked with a pang. "Just now," said Mother, "just now".
...there was the sound of a kiss; but Eliot said something else, something odd and . . . not pleasant, I thought, "Those children can be useful.""How useful?""Stop people talking.""Let them talk," said Mademoiselle Zizi."Don't be silly, Zizi. This is a little town and you have to live in it. The children will give me a reason for being here. After all, now I'm their guardian. They can be camouflage."
I did not know about Paul in those days, but even then, in my carelessness and ignorance, I was worried by his face. We had come to see the battlefields and, though we did not know it, this face was a part of them.
He could not know that when he told me small prickles seemed to be breaking out all over me and the back of my knees felt hot. I had to persist. "You mean . . . you made love? When you were fourteen?"
"I shall take you to the battle-fields of France... So that you can see what other people have given," said Mother, "given for your sakes; and what other people will do in sacrifice. Perhaps that will make you ashamed and make you think... You need to learn . . . what I cannot teach you," said Mother, her voice quivering.
"Were you ever a sailor? Joss asked..."Probably," said Eliot."Don't you know?" asked Hester incredulous."I know I was a soldier," said Eliot. "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman . . ."
Joss put her hand on Eliot's knee. "Eliot, what has made you so unhappy?"He looked down at her hand and I shall always remember his answer. "What has made you so unhappy?" Joss asked, and he answered, "Being perfectly happy for two days."
On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault, and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did.
Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), 'Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting' (1931), in Illuminations [quotation p.61 in my Fontana 1973 edition, translated by H. Zohn with an introduction by Hannah Arendt].
He doesn't like to make things easy for the reader; indeed he likes to make things as complex as he can. That's largely for his own benefit - when he reads other writers of crime he finds them never as complicated as they should be. ''I hate having things spelled out to me.'' So he tries to be as elliptical as possible and his publisher, Michael Heyward at Text, can get a bit exasperated. ''He says 'I think you've compressed this to the point of incomprehension' and I say that is exactly what I was trying to do. He has asked me what does this mean.