Monday, May 25, 2015

Now, Voyager

I like the idea that someone took with him on a weekend away a book that I had lent him. I do not yet know whether he enjoyed it; I barely know if he opened it once the agenda of the group he was joining on the Maine coast took shape. Things he may have pictured having time for might have given way to the long friendly preparations of meals or a side trip to the area’s antique stores.

I suspect that if the soft-cover copy of Now, Voyager made it out of his luggage and landed on a kitchen counter, one of the other men sharing the condo would have picked it up – if only to peruse the Hollywood still of Bette Davis and Paul Henreid on the cover of the novel.

The 1942 black-and-white film based on this work of fiction is something of a classic. One of my earliest gay friends used to be able to recite two hours of key lines before Bette Davis ever opened her mouth. One night in the late 1980s when the movie was scheduled to air, I set up my cassette recorder next to the television. After repeated playings, I became familiar with the pace and tone of the dialogue. I came to know when a pause meant that Paul Henreid was lighting a cigarette – or, rather, two cigarettes.

The name Olive Higgins Prouty appears on the screen whenever Now, Voyager is shown. It is her 1941 novel that brought to life the character of Charlotte Vale and the setting of her elegant Back Bay home where Doctor Jaquith, the compassionate director of a local sanatorium, first meets her at the family’s request. He becomes her lifeline.

It never occurred to me that I might enjoy reading the novel until I saw the 2004 paperback edition in a local bookstore. I have owned my copy for close to ten years without ever probing too deeply into the story of its author. This weekend, though, I gleaned enough online information to realize that Olive Higgins Prouty is buried only fifteen minutes from where I live. I might be able to make the kind of literary pilgrimage that delights bookish types.

While my copy of the novel was up on the Maine coast with my friend, I set about a little sleuthing here at home. It helped that Memorial Day weekend had most cemetery offices open. I got to engage someone official who eventually paused over an index card, typed back in 1974 when the novelist had been buried. He pointed out the general area on a cemetery map where I should begin my search for the Prouty graves.

Before he put away the index card, I glimpsed a nearby address that had been typed under the author’s name. “Is that where she lived?” I asked. Without any hesitation, the cemetery official made a photocopy of the index card for me. I was on my way.

Ten minutes later I was standing over the grave of someone I had never met. It was a far-distant Boston that I got to sense briefly there, quiet and still on a Sunday afternoon. I took pictures with my phone.

I was ready to leave when I saw a locked gate at the end of the roadway along which I had walked in my search for the grave. I recognized something that I did not expect. As a car passed on the other side of the locked gate, I suddenly knew where I was. It dawned on me that here was a stretch of road along which I drive once a week. Seldom able to glimpse over the stone wall surrounding the cemetery, I nevertheless weekly drive within a short walk of Olive Higgins Prouty.

When I pass there, I am on my way to an appointment with my own Dr. Jaquith.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Do I Keep the Book?

What am I saying when I keep a particular book? What am I safeguarding when it is one among hundreds at home and in my office?

Again and again I propose to myself a simplifying of my office book shelves, a thinning, a discarding. This can be preparation, I tell myself, for the day when I will leave what has been my place of employment for over thirty years.

Do I intend taking home all of the books now on my office shelves? By that day – maybe five years away, maybe fewer – when I vacate this beautiful office (and, yes, it is a beautiful office), I will have made some decisions. I will have answered some questions about my life.

And I will possibly have postponed answering others. I will have packed away a book without facing squarely the question it and it alone poses me.

For that is the issue. How definitively am I willing to forgo the pull of the question that a particular book poses? How soon am I willing to forget that that question was once an important one?

What testimony to learning does a 1945 translation of the Georgics bear? How sad if I let myself be no longer reminded of the internment camps in Singapore where former schoolmaster L.A.S. Jermyn translated Vergil a few lines a night! The thin green volume of The Singing Farmer: A Translation of Vergil’s Georgics stays with me.

Hardly irreplaceable, the 1966 paperback The Documents of Vatican II is one of all the books on my shelves that has been longest in my possession. Its red cover identifies it as the early Walter Abbott edition of the documents, more forward-looking and ecumenical in spirit than the 1975 edition by Austin Flannery. What happened to me, to my teachers, to my fellow seminarians in those first years after the Council? That red cover can remind me.

On October 21, 2005, colleagues and I attended a poetry reading at Harvard’s Sackler Museum. The draw was Mary Oliver. The surprise of the evening, though, was a young poet named Kevin Goodan whom Mary Oliver had chosen to read with her. What are the ways that a voice not yet confident breaks your heart when you hear it the first time? I still page through In the Ghost-House Acquainted, listening for Goodan’s voice.

Will a day really come when I no longer want to page through these three books?