I never met Roland Barthes, the critic whose work (in French) I love the most and that always seems to love me back. Barthes, having been hit by a laundry truck, died at age sixty-four in the year 1980 – or when I was just twenty years old. I did, though, meet the American poet, Richard Howard, who having been Barthes’ protégé went on to translate most of the man’s work.
Being a protégé, I myself have found, is like being a child – or as Barthes would have it, “a child getting an erection.” “I want maternity and genitality,” he explains (in French) in A Lover’s Discourse. The translation is by Howard. Howard himself, in verse, writes related lines like these from “Elementary Principles at Seventy-Two” – the last work in the collection Talking Cures:
When we consider the stars / (what else can we do with them?) and even / recognize among them sidereal // father-figures (it was our / consideration that arranged them so), they will always outshine us, for we change.
Earth, though, is another matter. She is the “last mother,” writes Howard, the “one womb” to which – in death – we all return. Being a mentor, then, is like being a parent – or, if one is male, like being a father getting an erection. And so, as I’ve also found, you can screw them both up – both teaching and learning – that way: like some if not sexually then at least emotionally abusive father or son, mother or daughter, lover or beloved. Sometimes when this happens, it’s the older person’s fault. Sometimes it’s the younger one’s. And sometimes – as with Howard and me, if not Howard and Barthes – it’s that of both. The poet, at ninety-one years old, will die pretty soon – and has not spoken to me for the last twenty or so of those years.
I first met Richard Howard in the fall of 1997. An unwittingly cruel but much loved boyfriend having dumped me that previous January (on the day before my birthday), I’d begun writing a novel – or as Howard would later have it, “pseudo-novel.” That ex-boyfriend, of course, was already a character in this work, called Finishing Proust. So, too, was my friend Wayne Koestenbaum – who like Howard is a poet, like Barthes is a critic, and like Marcel Proust is also a novelist. (Howard would soon join those two there, as a character in the novel.) Wayne, I knew, had had Howard years ago as a teacher in some poetry class. I knew, too – from Wayne – that Howard was now translating Proust’s novel, Remembrance of Things Past. I knew, too – from him – that Howard is gay. I’d have inferred this anyway, though, from such translation work in progress – much as one infers it of the character Addison DeWitt in the film All About Eve. Addison, there, is the unmarried, acid-tongued drama critic, played by George Sanders. One infers it, too, of the unmarried, eponymous Eve Harrington – played by Anne Baxter.
I asked Wayne, therefore, to introduce us. He then telephoned Howard, told him a bit about my work, in general, and with the man’s permission said to soon expect a phone call from me. I telephoned Howard, told him a bit more about my work, in general, and said I’d soon be in New York – or rather New Jersey – for Thanksgiving at my sister’s. And so he invited me over to his place, in Manhattan, on the day after this holiday.
“Let’s have wine together,” said Howard.
As that day – at first – was warm, I arrived coatless. Howard, at the door, shook my hand. I had never before seen such a neat apartment: Persian rugs everywhere; floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, with most works in French; a desk set right in the middle – a beautiful, shall we say, bureau-plat. Nor had I ever seen such a person: a short, somewhat fat sixty-something-year-old – bald, mostly, with the remaining hair white – wearing bold Philip-Johnson-like eyewear plus some crazy red bowtie. The remaining clothes were black. The smile – quite white – was dazzling. “Nice teeth,” I thought. Plus the eyes – quite blue – had a certain twinkle I liked. Here, by the way, is a nearly pornographic limerick I now wrote on the architect Philip Johnson:
Architect Mies van der Rohe / Told Philip to put on a show: / “A house made of glass, / Surrounded by grass/ Some stripling would then have to mow.”
Howard now led me to a loveseat. He himself – legs crossed girlishly – sat across from this in an armchair. That bureau-plat was behind him, some books and other stuff on a shelf behind me. In between us, on a coffee table, were the wine and cheese, plus raisins and almonds. “So he’s Jewish,” I thought. “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen.” It’s a lullaby I knew, in Yiddish.
I spoke, both admiringly and sincerely, to Howard about his Barthes translations. Sincerely, but also I now suspect rather charmingly. Charmingly, and maybe even cunningly. I asked, too, about his Proust translation. This work, he said, involves pleasure “very close to terror,” a feeling that “never abates” because he’s always, it felt to him, within the “clutches of something beyond my ability.” This “something,” he said, is the “poetic attention to linguistic detail” that no novelist before Proust ever paid, which attention both conveys “an impression of verbal immediacy” and compensates for what Howard called “the formal incoherence of the whole.”
He asked about my work. I mentioned, in particular, both Love’s Litany and Beethoven’s Kiss – my first two books. Howard smiled again and – suddenly speechless – pointed to something just past my head. I turned, then saw what I’d guess was a plaster cast of some Antinous bust. Or maybe, I thought, it’s Alcibiades. Next to this, though, were those two books of mine. Not only had he read them, Howard said, he very much “admired” them.
This, one must confess, was intoxicating. No both academic and literary celebrity – which is what, even then, I did consider Howard – no such celebrity had ever paid me such attention. One must also confess, though, that it didn’t now occur to me – and nor has it until just moments ago – that Howard may not have read those books, let alone bought them, until after those telephone calls from Wayne and me.
Howard now asked, in particular, about my book on Nijinsky, which was about to come out, and also about that – had I said “novel” on the phone? So I first told him about a long, somewhat crazy call to the poet Frank Bidart. I had wanted to quote in this book – and at great length – a work of Bidart’s called “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky.” I then told Howard about how with Bidart’s permission – as well as that of his publisher – I could now do so. Bidart, I said, had taught a graduate student of mine – now a friend – named Lorry Perry back in college. Wellesley College, which is not that far from Harvard University. Like Wayne with Howard – I also said – Lorry, too, had first telephoned this former teacher of hers for me. Unlike Wayne with Howard, though, she later warned me that he’s “telephobic.” Howard, turns out, also knew Bidart. “And Lonnie is right,” he said. “Frank does quite fear the instrument.”
I now improvised, or faked improvising, a synopsis of Finishing Proust. In it, I said, the narrator “Stephen Kopelson,” late in life, is trying to understand why his younger brother, “Kevin,” a literary critic, couldn’t finish some nonfiction book of his, also called Finishing Proust, on why that Frenchman couldn’t finish his own novel, and also to understand why Kevin hanged himself.
“Would you care to hear the first chapter?” I asked.
And so, just happening to have that chapter – in draft – with me, I began to “rhapsodize”:
My younger brother’s next book would have been on Marcel Proust – which Wayne says was expected. My brother’s book on romantic love ends by suggesting that Roland Barthes wanted to be Proust: “The homosexuality of a writer who, to cite one gay signifier among many, sees himself as Proust, goes without saying.” His book on the “piano queen” begins with an epigraph from Sodom and Gomorrah: “Who would ever have detected that the rapid, nervous, charming style with which M. de Charlus played the Schumannesque passage of Fauré’s sonata had its equivalent – one dare not say its cause – in elements entirely physical, in the Baron’s nervous weaknesses?” (The translation is by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin.) His book on Vaslav Nijinsky cites Time Regained: “The true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.” (Same translation.) It cites “Shéhérazade” as well, a poem by Wayne: ‘An Egyptian fag / dangles from the rouged lips / of Reynaldo Hahn – in Proust’s bed – / humming “Si mes vers avaient des ailes.” / Nothing I can write will have / such wings.’
Wayne, here, is Wayne Koestenbaum, whose book on the opera queen, which I read upon publication, anticipated Kevin’s related venture. But I didn’t know Wayne at the time. I never even met him – or arranged to meet him – until a year ago, which was just about twenty years after Kevin killed himself. It took me that long to care to understand the suicide note. It also took me that long to read the piano queen book, which is what, along with the “Shéhérazade” cite, made me think Wayne could help. In it, Kevin writes: “We all spend a lot of time trying – and failing – to distinguish identification from desire. Like Wayne Koestenbaum, we all ask ourselves questions like, ‘Am I in love with Julie Andrews, or do I think I am Julie Andrews?’” I knew Kevin knew Wayne. I wondered whether he was in love with Wayne as well, or whether he wanted to be him. If so, I wondered whether Kevin had told him so. I also wondered whether he’d told him everything he couldn’t tell me.
And so on. By the time I finished, though, I was in tears. I therefore explained to Howard who my brother Steve was, in real life, that it had been Steve who hanged himself, that I’d never gotten over it. But Howard, he said, already knew as much from Beethoven’s Kiss.
This whole speech or rather “speech act” of mine – from overlong rhapsody to superfluous explanation – felt sincere to me, just as had what I told Howard about his translations. But was it, too, also charming? Was it, too, also cunning? Was it, moreover, what a critic – or cynic – might call a strategic – or manipulative – deployment of sentimentality? Or was it a both self-addressed and maudlin, not to mention childish, exercise in mourning – in advance – my own possible death?
Howard said nothing about those tears of mine. In parting, though, he gave me a nearly new dress coat – of light grey alpaca – as, he did say, “it must be cold out by now.” Plus this thing “doesn’t fit anymore.” Too small on the man, I figured. Too big on me, I found. But who cared. The only other such coat I had, some dark blue cashmere one of Dad’s – who had died over four years earlier – was too big as well. Plus that thing was threadbare.
I also got from Howard a newly published – in hardcover – poetry collection of his. It’s called Like Most Revelations. And so, both charming and flirtatious, he inscribed on its title page: “For Kevin, mostly revealed.”
We both now – no mere handshake – embraced. Or as I would rather have believed, Howard alone hugged me.
Flying home from New York, I read and just loved Like Most Revelations. As for verse by the author of The Queen’s Throat (“An Egyptian fag / dangles from the rouged lips / of Reynaldo Hahn – in Proust’s bed,” and so on), it would soon – about two weeks later – inspire the not at all pornographic limerick:
The queerness of opera queen Wayne / Arose from his feeling the pain / Of diva roles juicy / As Lammermoor’s Lucy – / A bride who was bloody insane.
But I now thought, up there: if only my own prose – like that of either Wayne Koestenbaum or Victor Hugo – had “such wings.” It’s Hugo who wrote what – at age fifteen, before ever meeting Proust – Hahn so famously set to song: “Si mes vers avaient des ailes.”
Upon return home, I went to Prairie Lights – the Iowa City bookstore – for more such books: the collection called Two-Part Inventions, by Howard; his collection No Traveller. These, too, I loved, while also learning, from the dust jackets, that he had won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Plus he had won a MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Award,” for both poetry and translation. He had also, most impressively, been named a Chevalier of L’Ordre National du Mérite – a sort of knighthood – by France. (It was Napoleon, I believe, who first created the honor.) “Talk about celebrity,” I thought – literary or otherwise. “Talk about stardom!”
And then one day, about a month later, the telephone rang. It was Howard, to my surprise and delight. I told him that the Nijinsky book was in the mail to him. I told him, too – both sincere and charming – how much I loved his poetry now. He told me, mainly, about a dog he had just bought.
“What kind of dog?” I asked.
“A French Bulldog,” he said.
“What have you named him?” I asked.
“Gide,” he said.
André Gide, as you may know, was the much older lover – and mentor – of the film-director-to-be Marc Allégret. (Allégret was fifteen, to Gide’s forty-seven years old, when they first met.) The latter, Allégret, later fell under the spell of Jean Cocteau, who Gide imagined would “corrupt” the boy. Cocteau’s more famous young lover – and mentee – was the actor Jean Marais, who would star in three films that the man directed: The Eternal Return, Beauty and the Beast, and Orpheus. Here, by the way, is that limerick – written the next day:
All those who love stunners with smarts – / If not in real life, in the arts – / Should go to a show / By surreal Cocteau. / The guy gave Jean all the best parts.
But I now wondered, while on the phone, when Howard would get to the point. What, in particular, did he want from me? Why, in fact, was he calling? (Yes, one must confess, I was that stupid. Or if not stupid, then – perhaps – at least still somewhat innocent.) But maybe, I realized, there is no point. Maybe he just wants to chat. Maybe, notwithstanding Proust’s own “telephobic” aversion, or that of his narrator, to the “instrument,” this Proust translator wants company. Or at least virtual company.
I would now see Howard, once again at his place, every time I’d go – all alone – to New York. This, back then, was about twice a year: the first time, usually, for Passover over spring break; the second, once again, for Thanksgiving over fall break. (I now go – with my husband David – about once a year. More on him in just a bit.) Howard, once again, would always serve wine and cheese – to which that new dog of his, Gide, was also attracted. He would also, once again, serve rozhinkes mit mandlen – to which Gide was not. Howard would wear, I noticed, not just crazy bowties but also vests. I myself always wore that coat of his.
The next such trip coincided with a reading I did, from the Nijinsky book, at A Different Light – a gay hence now missing bookstore in Greenwich Village. Howard, kindly, had offered to introduce me. I, both delighted and star-struck, had of course accepted. I don’t know, though, what he said in this introduction. I was distracted, throughout it, by the presence there – both unsolicited and unwelcome – of, no, not Gide – who stayed back at Howard’s apartment – I was distracted by my brother Bob – to whom, at the time, I was no longer speaking. (Bob is thirteen years older than I am. My sister, Maureen, is sixteen years older.) But that’s another, albeit related, story. Unlike Bob (at Syracuse University), you see, I had just gotten tenure (at the University of Iowa). He, thus topped by me, threw a tantrum.
“How,” I wondered as Howard spoke, “did Bob hear about this reading? And why would he come to it?”
The trip after that, I gossiped – to Howard’s delight – about the poet Jorie Graham – a seemingly crazy colleague of mine. He, turns out, also knew this poet – like Bidart – in person.
Another time, we discussed – and then told jokes about – our both being Jewish.
Another time, to my surprise but also discomfort, Howard confessed that not only had he translated most of Barthes, he had also – in youth – had a “somewhat serious” love affair with him. I did not, being a gentleman, ask for details. I did, though, imagine a few. I also asked myself, rhetorically: “Who knew?”
Nor, I soon found, did anyone else seem to know of the affair. For I could not find this fact, if fact it be, anywhere in print. Hence, in part, the not at all pornographic limerick I then wrote on, no, not Richard Howard, or even – once again – the architect Philip Johnson. Hence this one on Gertrude Stein:
A savvy old sapphist named Gertie, / Considered by many too wordy, / Dashed off the Life / Of Toklas, her wife, / While leaving out everything dirty.
The “Life,” here, is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – by Stein about herself, mainly, in the third person. Then again, neither she nor I – unlike Proust – is really a novelist.
When I finished Finishing Proust, I not only sent it – sadistically – to my ex-boyfriend to read, I also – masochistically – sent it to Stanford University Press. Stanford, not to brag, had – in both hardcover and paperback – produced my at that point first three books rather quickly. But it was hesitant this time – alarmingly hesitant – in part because, as my until just then dearly beloved editor there, the late, great Helen Tartar, at last confessed to me, via telephone, some anonymous reader for the press, even though suggesting both revision and publication, felt that while “he or she” – gender-equivocal – “very much admires your project, Kevin,” the very last thing they expected such work to be “was something this, well, boring.”
Tartar then – non-sadistically – mailed me this reader’s report. On his or her boredom, I read there:
This puzzles me. As best as I can guess, the project represents a kind of ascesis on the author’s part (maybe because of the involvement of mourning), a deliberate renunciation of the “writerly” aspects of his writing. The result, though, is a very flat and formulaic, even at times pedantic book, about as un-Proustian as could be.
I also read that “Stephen,” my narrator, almost never addressed anyone – other than, I’d say, either Stephen himself or our two selves alone: “Again, this failure of address” – he or she said – “could represent one of the blockages involved in mourning: there’s no one anymore to be addressed.” And yet for Finishing Proust to get any further, “that blockage will have to be opened out, explored, stirred up, rather than just numbly performed.” The reader was also, I’m afraid, both irritated and annoyed by “all the quotation”:
Stephen maddeningly, and I think unbelievably, keeps quoting Kevin’s work quoting others. He even, at one point, quotes Koestenbaum’s blurb for one of the books!
And then, relatedly, came this:
It may of course seem both narcissistic and self-promoting, to some, for a still-young critic – younger than I, at any rate – to write a book, even one so savvy about its narcissism, that is so closely focused on his own earlier work. By the time of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, after all, the man – at I believe sixty – was quoting, and not excessively, from an already very large body of such criticism, one that had modulated, moreover, through several major phases: Marxist then neo-Marxist; structuralist then poststructuralist. The same, I’m afraid, cannot be said of Kopelson at – what? Isn’t he forty?
I was, in fact – like Margo Channing in All About Eve – only nearly forty.
This “he or she,” though – I soon learned – was Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. (I learned it, in fact, from Tartar – during another telephone call. I had pressured her, for no good reason, to breach such confidentiality. She succumbed, as you’ll see, for a very good one.) And that, I thought, was a horse of a different color. Sedgwick, as Tartar must have known I’d sense, was someone – like Wayne – who, as an ideal reader of mine, really should have loved this book. At the time, though, I could not yet accept what I feared, indeed must have known, unconsciously, would despite that call for revision by Sedgwick, be eventual rejection – damnation, even – by Stanford University Press. And nor could I accept that the woman, as usual, or make that both women – both Tartar and Sedgwick – were right. (Except, I think, for the bit – by Eve – about “all the quotation.”) So I did not do what I really should have done plus what Tartar, at least, clearly wanted me – for both our sakes – to do, which was to withdraw the damned book from consideration.
Instead, I wrote – with now wounded pride, or narcissism, and also bridled ambition – what can only be described, in retrospect, as an academic, perhaps pseudo-academic, but certainly hysterical not to mention both unsolicited and unwelcome twenty-page rant, one that I’d love now, with your indulgence, if not irritation, if not annoyance, to quote, quite shamelessly, and not just at length, or even great length, but in its shameful, nay terrible and quite possibly boring entirety. But I won’t. (So you can just imagine it.) There was, of course, no response to this from Tartar.
Calling, then, for backup – celebrity backup – I asked, with ambition once again unbridled and narcissism healed, my new oh so famous friend Richard Howard to now read my entire “novel” plus that less than glowing report on it by not quite so famous Eve Sedgwick plus that I thought clearly brilliant rant of mine about her report. And then, if he’d be so kind, would he also please send, unsolicited by Tartar, a rave report to her?
Howard was, in fact, so kind – or considerate – and then also sent me a copy of it. This letter, dated June 8, 1999, in (almost) its entirety reads:
I am a devoted reader of Kevin Kopelson’s, familiar with his earlier books, of which I vastly prefer the Nijinsky, but admire all three, and I write – encouraged to do so by Kevin, of course – to encourage publication of this newest and most delirious example of transformative criticism. It seems to me that the very qualities that make this pseudo-novel so extreme, so loony, in fact, are the ones that revise – or correct – our notions of what criticism should be. My own pallid appearance in Finishing Proust has little enough to do with the final effect of the piece for me to assert without too much self-assertion that I find the book a logical meditation on what Kopelson has discovered about himself and about reading in his first three books, and a sort of ecstatic – delirious, I repeat – justification of the entire enterprise. Of course I can understand a certain reluctance or at least resistance on the part of the Press to the wackier aspects of the undertaking, but I suspect that it is mandatory, since you have published the first three little books, that you conclude the vision with this final or do I mean aperient text. For what I take Kopelson’s book to represent, ultimately, is the relation – positive, nourishing, life-enriching – between reading and life, and in its nutty way I believe that there is a sort of inspirational or evangelistic passion to the affair, which is why I refer to it as a vision: the web keeps widening, the strands sticky enough to engage any circumambient insects, or prey, and at the center is the spider Kopelson, spinning, devouring, being possessed. The book is really about the hold that reading has over a man’s life, and the hold that his life has over whatever he reads, so that, as he says in the most Proustian of all possible sentences, “it was time to keep reading.” Eagerly, then, I commend Kopelson’s book to you as a professor of literature, as a reader of novels, and as a man nearly as concerned to master his experience by and against reading as Kopelson himself; I think Finishing Proust is a perfected netsuke, the tortured finial of a literary apprenticeship which to me suggests that anything Kopelson will now write will be the work of a master.
June eighth, the day that this letter was written, happens to be my husband David’s birthday – although it would be almost a year, back then, before he and I first met. “Aperient” means purgative, or laxative.
Helen Tartar – I’d imagine – was neither persuaded nor impressed nor pleased by this shenanigan. For once again, according to Howard, there was no response from her. And then she did reject me. She rejected my book, that is, a kindness, as it happens, perhaps loving kindness, for which, having now come to know, consciously, and also accept how right the late, great Eve Sedgwick was (except about quotation), I am finally if belatedly quite grateful to them both – and yet also grateful to Howard.
At the time, though, I was traumatized – ambition once again bridled, narcissism wounded. I cried and cried and cried all alone, hence non-strategically. But eventually, on sabbatical – still alone – in Los Angeles, I thought – while also, at other times during that fall of 1999, having sex with strangers at a bathhouse there – of a different yet altogether conventional book to write. I could now do, I figured, a somewhat historical, somewhat theoretical study of twentieth-century “neatness.” The premise, inspired by Michel Foucault, would be that Nietzsche, with his “Apollonian” character, and Freud, with his “anal” character, effected an “epistemic” or paradigm shift that demonized obsessive order.
Of course, I soon realized, that’s not really true. The shift never happened. And so, instead – I figured – I could redo my novel as conventional. The whole thing, in fact, could become just one chapter – called “Bedtime Story” – of a straightforward, neo-humanistic – meaning post-poststructuralist – or at least somewhat non-theoretical – but as of yet not quite self-consciously elegiac or simply mournful – book of criticism about connections between various authors’ workspace and work they produced there: in other punning words, bed-ridden or lit-erary form in Proust, with other chapters on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who unlike Richard Howard was a slob, the playwright Tom Stoppard, for whom desks are like a stage, the travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who at least claimed to work in public, and Roland Barthes. I came home, to Iowa City, was soon ravished there – the following spring – by David, and began such a book: Neatness Counts: Essays on the Writer’s Desk.
My next trip to New York was the following fall – only I now brought David with me. And, unlike Howard, he is a very handsome man: both blond-haired and quite, quite blue-eyed. He’s both my own age, which was forty years old by now, and at five foot ten my own height. Unlike me, though, he’s big and muscular. Plus he’s never worn glasses – whereas my own eyewear, then, was more like that of Harold Lloyd, the silent-film actor, than of Philip Johnson.
David’s teeth, moreover, are quite, quite white. But was that quite white smile of Richard Howard’s still there? Was that twinkle in his blue eyes? It is hard for me to say. (David, though, has said: “Of course not!”) It’s hard because, too busy, myself, twinkling at handsome, handsome David – now himself, in that tight blue polo shirt and those even tighter black jeans, doing so back at me – I wasn’t looking for such a thing from or even I suppose demanding it of lonely, lonely Howard anymore. It’s hard because Howard himself was still being kind or at least very nice to me. (So, too, I might add, was that dog of his.) It’s also hard because, being still – perhaps – somewhat innocent, I’d never consciously considered Howard’s twinkle to be at all romantic. I’d considered it – both consciously and, I think, unconsciously – to be either somewhat paternal or friendly. And paternal love, at least, is either supposed or imagined to be both unconditional and – even after the death of the father, or his return to Mother Earth – unending. At least that’s how I’ve both imagined and experienced it to have been and also, even still, to be with my now dead dad. It’s also how it’s been with the late, great Robert – or “Bob” – Scholes, my dissertation director and then somewhat paternal friend. Only this “Bob” – this former mentor of mine – was, unlike Dad but also unlike my brother Bob (though for different reasons), a both non-gay and happily married man.
Here, at any rate, is that scene transcribed. We’ve moved – sans Gide – from Howard’s apartment to, at his suggestion, some restaurant nearby. There are very tall white columns, I noticed. There are also very tall black waiters. Our table, though, is very small:
RICHARD: So, David, what do you make of our little Kevin?
DAVID: I think he looks like an elf.
RICHARD: An “elf“?
DAVID: Or that’s what Sam thinks.
KEVIN (interrupting): Sam, you know, is David’s son. His youngest son of three.
RICHARD (to Kevin): I did not know.
(“Didn’t I tell Richard about this before the trip?” I asked myself.)
(“No, of course you didn’t,” I replied.)
KEVIN (feeling ashamed): I’m sorry, Richard. That wasn’t very nice of me. I should have told you about all of them.
Nor – it occurred to me moments ago – was such failure very friendly of me. And by “about this” as well as “about all of them,” I of course meant not only David’s sons (Adam, Seth, and Sam) but also David himself.
But to narrate the scene – or to just have Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse (as translated by Howard) say what Howard himself may have felt: “The world is full of indiscreet neighbors with whom I must share the other.” The “neighbor,” here, would be David. I’m “the other.” Barthes also writes there:
As a jealous man, I suffer four times over: because I am jealous, because I blame myself for being so, because I fear that my jealousy will wound the other, because I allow myself to be subject to a banality: I suffer from being excluded, from being aggressive, from being crazy, and from being common.
He writes, too: “Most of my injuries come from the stereotype: I am obliged to make myself a lover, like everyone else: to be jealous, neglected, frustrated, like everyone else.”
I did not, though – upon return home – now “neglect” Howard. I called the man, from time to time. I also, using postcards – with some of the cards themselves photographs of bulldogs and others of them ones of Proust– wrote him charming, maybe even cunning, but certainly not flirtatious little notes.
Howard, though, was no longer calling me. Plus he only ever wrote back to me once. I had asked, in a letter, if he’d now be so kind as to please send yet another – now solicited – report on my behalf. This time, it would be to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study – at Harvard University – in support of a “Bunting” Fellowship there. Wayne I’d already asked – although I hadn’t bothered mentioning this in that letter to Howard – to send a second such report. Howard, using a postcard, answered: “Yes, of course I will.” But the photo on this card, I noticed, was of Count Robert de Montesquiou – a model in real life for the character, in Proust, named Baron de Charlus.
So I then mailed Howard my “Bunting” proposal: “As originally conceived,” it said pseudo-academically, “Neatness Counts was to have been a Foucauldian study of twentieth-century neatness, the spurious premise of which is that Nietzsche, with his Apollonian character, and Freud, with his ‘anal’ character, effected an epistemic shift that demonized obsessive order.”
As finally executed, however, the book will be the first full-length study of the poetics of the modern writer’s workspace: What do desks represent for writers? How do writers represent desks? For whom does the topography of the desk correspond to the topography of literary creation? For whom does it not correspond? Neatness Counts, moreover, will commemorate an era in which the term “desktop” did not refer to one’s computer screen.
I also mailed, along with this, some form for Howard to fill out.
Or I at least – consciously – thought I did. By accident – Iowans, for some reason, say “on accident” – I mailed Wayne’s form to Howard, or rather the one on which I myself had already written the name of this former student of his. (Wayne, therefore, must have had Howard’s form.) And then a few days later the telephone rang. It was Howard, to my surprise and delight. But he then asked, somewhat nastily, what he was supposed to do with Wayne’s form. I explained – feeling embarrassed – the mix-up, apologized for it, and said I’d mail him the correct form.
“Alright, fine” he said – and then hung up on me. And so there, upon his receipt of Wayne’s form, must have been Wound Number One to Howard’s narcissism. I had – on accident – equated the man with someone to whom for some reason he must have still needed to feel superior. Or was this just an accident? Sigmund Freud would have said “no,” while Howard himself – likewise – might have consciously thought it wasn’t.
I have never seen Howard’s report on me – on the book-in-progress Neatness Counts, rather – to the Radcliffe Institute. The man himself didn’t send a copy of it – unlike the one he wrote on Finishing Proust – to me. And nor of course did the Radcliffe Institute – along with their fellowship offer to me – send one.
I called Wayne, upon my receipt of that offer, with the good news – as well as with thanks, of course, for his own report. (I’ve never seen that one, either.) Howard I sent a thank-you note. This ended, using a cliché: “and if there is any way I might return the favor, please do tell me.” And then a few days later the telephone rang. It was Howard, once again – but he wasn’t just nasty. He was furious. And so he wasn’t just shouting at me. (“Would I!”) He was screaming. “How dare you suggest,” the man asked rhetorically, “that you’re now or for that matter will ever be in a position to help someone like me?” He then, once again, hung up on me. And so there, upon his receipt of my note, was Wound Number Two to that narcissism: I had equated Howard – on accident – with someone else to whom for some reason he must need to feel superior. Someone, moreover, who himself – Howard must need to know – felt inferior.
I myself now felt worse than just embarrassed or even ashamed. I felt stung. I felt “siderated” – in at least virtual person – by Howard because here, for me, was Trauma Number Two. Like both Eve Sedgwick and Helen Tartar, who up until their seemingly joint rejection of Finishing Proust had functioned, archetypically, for me as Good Mothers but were then suddenly, I felt, pretty bad ones, Howard, in this furious response of his to my thank-you note, had changed, I felt, or maybe he’d just flipped, from being a kind of Good Father to me, as well as friend, to being a pretty horrible one.
Thinking that Howard would just disconnect again, if called back, I sent him a – merely sincere – note of apology. In it, I wrote how much I truly admire all of the man’s work, both poetry and translation, plus how truly grateful I’ve been – indeed shall always be – for “your attention, assistance, and also, quite frankly, kindness.” I wrote, too – masochistically – that I’ve never imagined myself “anywhere near your own literary level.” And so what I’d really meant by “return the favor” – in the thank-you note – was, if anything, to perhaps do anything he might “if not quite need, of course, then simply desire from me.” There was no response to this from Howard. I must have felt – yet had not quite thought – that I myself have become not the man’s next friendly, somewhat filial former protégé – after Wayne – but, paradoxically, both his spurned lover, much as I’d been for that ex-boyfriend of mine, and, much as he had been for me, an unwittingly cruel beloved. (That, too, is another, albeit related, story – recounted far more accurately in my memoir, Confessions of a Plagiarist: And Other Tales from School, than it had been in Finishing Proust.) Howard himself, I felt, had therefore become not my next friendly, somewhat paternal former mentor – after Robert Scholes – but, paradoxically, both my own spurned lover and a deliberately cruel beloved. He’d become, that is, a kind of not so “charming” Charlus. You see, the narrator’s father in Remembrance of Things Past is almost unheard of. Charlus, though, acts somewhat paternal to the narrator. So, too, for that matter, does the character named Charles Swann. As such – unlike both Dad and Swann – Charlus can be abusive. Unlike Howard, though, he’s a closet case. Plus – like Jorie Graham, perhaps – the man is crazy.
Late one night, in a seaside hotel, Charlus makes a sexual advance that narrator, at about age sixteen, fails to detect. The next morning, on the beach, Charlus tells the narrator that his beloved grandmother is waiting somewhere for him. You then read: “I was greatly surprised to hear him say, pinching my neck as he spoke with a familiarity and a laugh that were frankly vulgar: ‘But he doesn’t care a fig for his old grandmother, does he, eh? Little rascal!’” (The translation, still, is by Moncrieff and Kilmartin.) Not knowing this was a bit of a tease, or flirtation, let alone a come-on, or seduction, the narrator – naturally enough – responds: “What, Monsieur! I adore her!” Charlus now screams, in what will be remembered by the narrator as a “torrent of abuse”:
“Monsieur … you are still young; you should profit by your youth to learn two things: first, to refrain from expressing sentiments that are too natural not to be taken for granted; and secondly not to rush into speech in reply to things that are said to you before you have penetrated their meaning. If you had taken this precaution a moment ago you would have saved yourself the appearance of speaking at cross-purposes like a deaf man, thereby adding a second absurdity to that of having anchors embroidered on your bathing dress.”
“You make me realize,” this ends, “that I was premature in speaking to you last night of the charms of youth. I should have done you a greater service had I pointed out to you its thoughtlessness, its inconsequence, and its want of comprehension.” Plus there will be other such “torrents” – or speech acts by Charlus – in years to come. There will also be, though, forgiveness of them by the narrator – and so by you, Proust’s reader, as well.
In Howard’s case – likewise – there would be forgiveness by me. Or there’d be at least acceptance by me. Before this, though, after that second disconnect by Howard, I of course called Wayne – the next day – to tell him what happened. Apparently, Wayne now confessed on behalf of or rather testified against Howard – much as Oscar Wilde had, in De Profundis, both on behalf of and against his just somewhat younger beloved “Bosie” – this wasn’t the first time that the man had either “flipped” or merely flipped out on some protégé. “But then sometimes,” said Wayne, “he’ll flip back.” And so maybe, I thought, they’re both really crazy – both Jorie Graham and Richard Howard. Maybe they’ve both got something along the lines of a major personality disorder. Or maybe they’ve got two of them: narcissistic disorder and borderline disorder.
Here, though – unlike with Charlus – there were no further “torrents.” And so I now became – or at least acted like – a not just spurned but ridiculous, importunate, and hence Swann-like lover of Howard. I sent the man, first of all, a second note of apology: this one both sincere and charming. No response. I then sent him both charming and cunning postcards. No response. I then sent a newly published book he might need: Proust’s English by Daniel Karlin. Still no response.
“What a bitch!” I thought. By this, though, I do not just mean to invoke the second of those five “grief stages” that the now dead psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her book On Death and Dying, so famously theorized: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I mean, too, to remind you of those legs that Howard so “girlishly” crossed when we first met. I therefore also mean to show how both sadistic and womanish – because given me by such a somewhat effeminate gay man – this virtual “silent treatment” of his had seemed. And yet, based on my more extensive experience as a protégé, I, too, would theorize, or at least imagine, that any, no, not so much either father or mother “supplement” – to re-use a poststructural term. I’d imagine that any not so much either father or mother “figure,” to now use a post-poststructural one, as any parent figure – be he or she either male, like Robert Scholes, or female, like Eve Sedgwick, or either gay, like Richard Howard and Wayne Koestenbaum (plus my brother Bob, really), or non-gay, like both Sedgwick and Scholes – can seem to be, to quote Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet, “gender-equivocal.” They can seem to be, that is – to quote Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse – both father and mother “getting an erection.” They can seem to be – to invoke “Elementary Principles at Seventy-Two,” by Howard – both stars above and Earth below. Can any biological parent, though, seem this? I’d say, based on my limited experience with Mom and Dad: “Of course not.” As has, based on his own such experience, David said so. As have, based on their experience, his sons Adam, Seth, and Sam.
But then a few months after I got to Harvard, Howard – I heard – would do a reading there. He would read poetry, that is, on the day before Thanksgiving, from the collection Talking Cures. And so I decided to just go to it – all alone – but not try addressing him. He’ll be impressed, I figured, by such reticence of mine. He’ll be pleased, too, by the not just admiration but respect for at least the man’s work – which is where, says Proust, any writer, no matter how horrible in person, reveals his best self – that, given our joint history, such presence of mine, however unsolicited and unwelcome, will show. (Oh, I now realized, that’s what Bob, back at my own reading at A Different Light, thought he was doing. All he really need do, though, was say he’s sorry about the tantrum.) Maybe Howard will then, I hoped, “flip back” on me. Or maybe he’s already done so – already forgiven me. And so here is this scene narrativized:
I’ve arrived early, taking my place – in an otherwise empty room – on a first-row, yes, loveseat below the podium. Some woman – just somewhat younger than I – comes in and of course also sits here. Bitch. Plus, I noticed, the woman stinks. She opens some bag containing I’d guess all of Howard’s books, both poetry and translation, and now builds a wall out of them between us. Crazy bitch. I guessed, too, that she’d probably have Howard inscribe the books.
Others arrive, including – as I could tell from postcard photographs seen at Prairie Lights – the poets Robert Pinsky (a protégé, at Stanford University, of the critic Yvor Winters, who, to quote Edmund White in the then most recent New York Review of Books, was “completely heterosexual and even a bit homophobic”), Lloyd Schwartz (an Elizabeth Bishop protégé, at Harvard University, and then also friend of hers), and, to my delight and surprise, Frank Bidart. (Bidart, too – Howard once told me – was a Bishop protégé and then also friend of hers). Jorie Graham, though – who by now had left the University of Iowa for Harvard – is not here.
Howard himself arrives, greets those three other poets, and after a nice but not at all memorable introduction by Pinsky – a former Poet Laureate, at the time – makes his way up to the podium. He, of course, now sees me sitting down here – plus what’s her name: Lucy Lammermoor, perhaps. He sees, too, that I’m looking at him with an expression, on my face, which shows, I hoped, either love or simply benevolence. And yet, not fathoming my facial expression – a so much more geriatric “want of comprehension,” on Howard’s part, than what Charlus complained of on the narrator’s – or at least pretending not to fathom it, he, in return, just looks at me with no expression at all. He then looks past me, thanks Pinsky for that “fabulous” introduction, says a bit about Talking Cures, in general, and begins to rhapsodize.
Howard never again – while reading from Talking Cures – looks at me. And so, I figured, he hasn’t yet flipped back on me. He therefore hasn’t forgiven me: for all the charm, if not the cunning; for the flirtation, if not seduction; for the, no, not stupidity, really, and nor even, I now figure, belated innocence. He had not forgiven a quite possibly willful ignorance of mine. And nor had he forgiven – although I’d still, at this very moment of writing, rather not believe this of myself back then – a quite possibly feigned ignorance. And nor would he ever do so.
I do not know what poems, in particular, Howard was reading up there. I don’t even know how he was reading them, as – once again – I was distracted. (Was Howard himself, having seen me down here, distracted? Probably.) I was distracted, that is, by pain this time. I was distracted by heartache, in particular, and maybe even by a broken heart. I did not, though, now cry. There was no one, in effect, to be cried at anymore – or to be blackmailed. More comically, though, I was also distracted by that seatmate, who soon – for some reason – started dismantling her book wall and then moving closer and closer and closer to me. And so by the time Howard finished reading, that “stink” or rather stench of hers had become just, well, horrible. Plus she may as well have been sitting on my lap.
And then after Howard finished, the woman just grabbed those books, leapt up from the loveseat, and, like some feminine id of mine, stormed the podium to start not quite addressing the poor man but prattling at him. She did, in fact, want all of the books inscribed. “For Lucy,” I myself would have written, “do please bathe.”
I, though, now went over to Frank Bidart, introduced myself – in person – to the man, and also thanked him in person for that “War of Vaslav Nijinsky” permission. Bidart – bald, mostly, with the remaining hair gray – said how “delighted” he was to finally see me and also how much he had “admired” The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky. (I had sent it, I now recalled, to Bidart as an initial thank-you. I did not recall what, if anything, I’d inscribed there.) And then when told I’d be at Harvard all year long, Bidart – oddly stirred – said let’s have wine together, maybe next week if that works for you, Kevin, and, oh, here – eyes a-twinkle, hands a-fumble for pen and paper – is my phone number.
Instead, though, I called David – the next day – to tell him what happened. Plus to ask David if he thinks I should call Bidart.
“That depends,” he said. “How old is the guy?”
“Sixty-something,” I said.
“Oh, no you don’t!” he said – somewhat paternally. “Not again!”
“Only connect,” writes E.M. Forster. It’s the ironic epigraph to – as you must know – his novel Howards End. “Only disconnect,” it therefore (nearly) really means. To quote Richard Howard, though, in “Knowing When to Stop”:
That’s one difference / between us and them, doctor: stench or no / stench, I hope I’d have / sufficient piety if not “pure love / and hate in object relations” to kiss / my master farewell.
It’s the second to last poem in Talking Cures, on both Freud and Freud’s own two dogs – not French Bulldogs but chow-chows named “Jofi” and “Lün,” who apparently would not go anywhere near that man’s death-bed.