Monday, June 18, 2012

Notes for the Defense

In class today I gave an impassioned speech about literature—maybe for myself more than for my students, who regarded me as I spoke with impassive curiosity, if at all.

I said (I'm summarizing): These stories are songs written to make life, with its inexplicable suffering, something more than a desert of pain. (I was happy to hear myself carried away.)

We were discussing "The Shawl," by Cynthia Ozick. At the end of my speech I had the sense to ask one of the students to read the story's final paragraph. I've made the mistake of reading it to a class before. It's disconcerting for students to watch their professor weep. And these students, most of them, don't deserve to see that, anyway. I've been dumbfounded this quarter—I've told them this—by their indifference. But, like me, they reflect their Age. I'm angry; they're indifferent; one or two of them seem to care about something other than money or grades—one or two of them are extraordinary, luminous with intelligence; the rest strike me as bored, and I strike them (correctly) as angry, and we blame our boredom and anger on each other and will forget about each other as soon as we can.

Still, walking into class this morning I was in an exuberant mood: after all, we were discussing "The Shawl" and, after a class break, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Reading García Márquez returns me to my youth, to literature as joy, to the pleasure of story: my first love. It's the love to which I've been most faithful, I suppose. It turned out that most of the class hadn't read the book—the luminous had read it—but I didn't care. Chronicle will be there for them tomorrow; it will be there when they're ready for it, when they realize that life is not about money or grades or the approval of their parents and that the same fate awaits them that befalls Magda and Santiago: certain death.

"So," I told them, "I suggest that you attend to this singing, and, more broadly, to the blessed habit we have—these artists have—of making songs of our suffering."


Nina Simone echoes through Coupa Cafe.


The Euro 2012 soccer tournament is in full swing right now, and like García Márquez soccer returns me to my youth—to the moment in my youth when I woke up: namely, to Eric in Argentina. There he is, in his white shirt and his conservative tie, with his boyish blonde cluelessness, watching Maradona highlights on a restaurant's flickering TV in little, provincial Azul. And, a year later, there he is—it's a June night in General Belgrano—swaddled against the cold in his uncle's down-filled sleeping bag, opening for the first time El amor en los tiempos del cólera.

Soccer and the novel: two inventions that honor life as suffering, punctuated by moments of beauty and joy.


There's a woman sitting at a table across from me who desperately needs a cigarette. She doesn't know she needs a cigarette—like most non-smokers—but by the velocity of her speaking it's clear she does.

The young man sitting with her hasn't touched his bagel. His slim arms, dark and almost hairless, he has folded across his chest. We both are trying to defend ourselves against her onslaught.


"It seems," Nina says, "that I'm never tired loving you."

I hadn't realized this about her: she sings like Elvis.


In a week my life will return to a now-all-too-familiar rootlessness. I blame no one but myself—in fact I don't even blame myself—but I'm aware this afternoon of a new exhaustion in my legs, my eyes, my heart. Perhaps it's this exhaustion that has me nostalgic for my youth—for Argentina and G.G.M.'s literature of joy, for soccer and its elegant, futile virility. Whatever the case, my life continues to be undeniably beautiful, but also saturated with sadness and tinged with new despair at a certain unrelenting maliciousness from over the hill that I cannot—and will no longer attempt to—surmount.

Eric in Belmont approaches his terminus. I cheer him up by reminding him of the girls in their summer dresses, and dinner tonight with Nathan and his new love, and the almond eyes that illuminate his dreams, and The Character of Rain (our next book), and the mystery of what tomorrow holds, be it sacred or profane.

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