Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

The Fools of Time

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

The Fools of Time

Article excerpt

"Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes, Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay ..."

William Butler Yeats

"Lapis Lazuli"

Max Eastman was in his eighties when I was in my twenties; we met on Martha's Vineyard and grew close. He welcomed me, whether in Gay Head, New York, or Barbados; he was tolerance incarnate, with an amused abiding sense of how youth preens. In addition to his work as activist and editor, he had published more than twenty books--volumes of poetry, biography, and political commentary, as well as a set of translations from the Russian; the second installment of his autobiography, Love and Revolution: My Journey through an Epoch, seemed a title entirely earned.

I postured. I was working on a novel (Grasse 3/23/66) that was recondite in the extreme. I'd labor in an ecstasy of self-congratulation, producing perhaps a hundred words a day, intoning the sibilant syllables until they appeared to make sense. One such passage, I remember, contained a quotation from Villon; a description of Hopi burial rites; an anagram of the name of my fifth-grade teacher; an irrefutable refutation of Kant; glancing reference to Paracelsus; a suggestive ditto to my agent's raven-haired assistant; a paraphrase of Cymbeline's dirge; and an analysis of the orthographic and conceptual distinction between Pope and Poe.

I took my time, I let it extend to ten lines. That night I brought my morning's triumph to Max and permitted him to read. He did so in silence. Then he tried it aloud; so did I. When he said it made no sense and I explained the sense it made, he looked at me with fond exasperation. "Sure" he said. "That's interesting. Why don't you write it down?"

I remember staying with him on Martha's Vineyard one October. His wife, Yvette, was off to New York for a shopping trip, and she asked me to sleep in their house--a favor to me, really, since my own hut was unheated. I was full of beans and bravado then, and would get to work by six--waking up and clacking at the keys in my upstairs bedroom. In the first pause, however, I could hear his steady hunt-and-peck in the study underneath; he'd been at work well before. So we'd share a cup of coffee and a comment on the news, then I'd fuss at my novel again. At nine o'clock I'd take a break--tear off my clothes and run down the hill to the pond. The morning would be glorious: that crystalline light, those sizeable skies, the pine trees somehow greener against the sere scrub oak. And always, out there in the still warm water, Max would lift his hand to me, his white mane on the wavelets like some snowy egret's, grinning.

Time passed. He died at eighty-six, in 1969. But it takes no effort to see this again: an old man waving from the water at a youth on the near shore. They are naked, both of them; the sun slants over Lobsterville. A few days sailors might be on the pond, or someone in a kayak, or musseling or digging clams. Gulls drift past, incurious; the beach smells of sea wrack and weed. There's a busy imitation of silence: the man in the water, bobbing, flutters heels and hands. The young one runs to meet him and it's all a perfect clarity until he does a surface dive and, splashing, shuts his eyes.

What do I see when I shut them; why is it simpler to focus with dosed eyes?

His was a vivid presence and mine is a good memory; did I get it right?

For time is the great editor; it makes us revise and revise.

"But it takes no effort to see this again: an old man waving from the water at a youth on the near shore ..."

I first composed this testimonial for a book of photographs in 1977, called On the Vineyard; I also used it in the Introduction to a text I edited, Speaking of Writing, in 1988. The former contained a set of essays by sometime residents of Martha's Vineyard, the latter a series of Hopwood Award Ceremony lectures--one of which was delivered by Max as long ago as 1932. …

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