August 12, 2013 | by Ann Beattie
Like every other person in school, I hated footnotes. That was what you’d be quizzed on and lose out, having watched the soaring bird while forgetting the gnat. They were a trap. Boring. Even the texts were boring (I thought then, along with my teachers being bizarre). I’m not kidding about this: to avoid classroom giggling (or worse), my high school English teacher referred to Melville’s book as “Moby Richard.”
Of course, now I’m a convert. Recently, there’s been a trend for writers to footnote fiction (Nicholson Baker; Tim O’Brien)–it’s the idea of footnotes as a continuation of the text, or, sometimes, perhaps a preemptive strike, using the gnat-gems to discourage academic pedants.
I’ve just finished reading (belatedly—it was published in 2007) a book I love, The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman, that wouldn’t be the same book without the footnotes, though they are not Lerman’s, but made by his former assistant, Stephen Pascal (apparently, with help from Lerman’s nearest and dearest, Richard Hunter and Gray Foy), when Pascal put the book together posthumously. In a certain world (primarily New York), at a certain time (from the forties on through 1993), there was hardly anyone Leo didn’t know, or know of, and that is in large part why he had the career he did, at Vogue, Mademoiselle, etc., which were not then the magazines they’ve become. Here, I must digress and say that along with a new enthusiasm for footnotes, I also love the use of brackets. Consider this, from Lerman’s book (brackets added by Pascal), about a once much-discussed writer who resists paraphrase but whose reputation always existed in anecdote, so what the hell: “[Writer Harold] Brodkey came to Diana Trilling bringing [his] forty-page manuscript written in ‘defense’ of her, against critics of her Mrs. Harris. He insisted she read this; she retaliated with the first chapter of her memoir. Harold then told Diana that she had no taste, she lived with ‘mail-order’ furniture, and a collection of ‘cheap’ third-rate drawings and Japanese woodcuts typical of academe house furnishings. He ended, as he left, saying out of nowhere, ‘Give my love to Leo Lerman!’” A footnote identifies Mrs Harris: “Diana Trilling’s book Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor (1981) depicted the trial and conviction of headmistress Jean Harris for the murder of Dr. Herman Tarnover.” (Alas, sic: Tarnower.) Since I remember this incident well, I doubted the footnote would contain anything essential to continuing my riveted reading of this excellent book, so I delayed receiving further information until I reached the end of the page, though I’d read the previous footnotes as I came to them. Somehow, as a group of four, the footnotes seemed to tell in microcosm little stories that echoed the expansive, main trajectory of the book: many people, almost all of a certain social class (or aspiring to it), quite mix-n-match, except that Lerman’s consciousness united them. The first footnote: “Romance novelist Judith Krantz’s 1978 book, Scruples, had been a huge seller.” Next footnote, about Lerman’s longtime companion: “Tiffany and Co. annually invited guests to style tabletops displaying its wares. Gray had done one that year.” (From Leo, we know it was “A pre-Hibernation Tea for Bears – Grizzly Delights.”) The mind boggles. Wouldn’t you love to have wandered into Tiffany’s and seen this? But the footnotes continue: “Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893–1978) was a British novelist, poet, and short-story writer.” Well, she was, but here I had to pause and remember how very many stories she’d published in The New Yorker, and really, what a surprise that she’d been born in 1893, making her a literary contemporary of Mrs. Wharton, for heaven’s sake (also: the brilliant The Age of Innocence, which won the Pulitzer in 1921, was published only five years before Gatsby and wowza, are those depictions of life in NYC and its environs worlds apart!) Then follows the footnote about Diana Trilling that, with its pitch-perfect use of the word “depicted” rather than the more usual “about” makes you envision whatever this trial was, while the omission of the name of the school where “headmistress” (what a concept!) Harris was employed shows you there’s got to be some limit to the facts of these footnotes, though independently, as well as collectively, they create their own momentarily cohesive, yet ironic world. (Digression: don’t fail to look at the index of first lines of James Wright’s Collected Poems. Successively, any half dozen or so make a poem of their own.)
Sure, some footnotes merely offer information, telling us that a town is in the northwest of Ireland (ho-hum; bring on the GPS). But others stun with information as sharp as a bee sting: you find out the people whose romantic wedding you’ve just read about divorced; that everything you just read was denied by authorities; that someone was one of nine children! In Richard Nixon’s Six Crises, which is rarely footnoted because he thinks he’s so thorough and so inevitably right, we read in the main text that after the riots that happened when Nixon went to Caracas, he and his wife were “applauded by spectators in hotel lobbies,” though what really bothers him is that newspaper columnists “sitting at their desks in Washington, wrote their ‘interpretations’ of what the South American trip meant. One wrote that the riots were directed against me as an individual … the attempts to stir up trouble against the United States could not be blamed on the Communists.” Here we get one of the rare footnotes: “Not all the rioters, of course, were Communists. But this misses the major point: there can be no doubt that the riots were Communist-planned, Communist-led, and Communist-controlled. Fresh evidence of this fact keeps turning up. Just a few months ago … two Peruvian students–self-confessed former Communists–told of Communist organizations of the San Marcos riots in Lima and also publicly apologized to me for their own part in these demonstrations.” So, you see? Nixon was and is correct. Do you believe it now, since it’s even in the footnotes?
In so many cases mysteries prevail, even in footnotes, or the footnotes raise little mysteries. In his impressive biography Koestler, Michael Scammell offers this chapter 11 footnote (quoted in part): “Although Koestler doesn’t say so, both he and Bihalj-Merin went to Switzerland for Maria’s funeral. According to the Swiss writer Werner Mittenzwei, who was also there, Maria had divided her estate among the poor émigré writers who had been her guests. Németh was one of the beneficiaries, but Koestler apparently wasn’t. See Tvertoda, 176-8, and Mittenzwei, 269.” Here is an author who could add much to the text, if so inclined, and who wants you to take notice of the complexity of some matters.
Today I sent an account of last night’s dinner with friends to another friend. I cooked; I got praised for it; I had a good time. I knew the friend receiving it would understand the context about which I wrote, quickly get the tenor of the evening (there aren’t that many tones at Camp Beattie-Perry), that I could communicate some funny things by shorthand. But having read with intense pleasure Leo Lerman’s cogent assessments much of the day, I was mentally footnoting at the same time I was writing my e-mail. To be honest, I’d started composing imaginary footnotes during dinner, thinking just how funny they might be, explaining my insecurity, my husband’s withheld thoughts (he insists on putting a positive spin on three weeks of rain on our recent Italian vacation). But don’t we all deal with what’s said vs. what’s unsaid? If I wrote autobiographically, should I be the one to write the footnotes, or would they best be left to someone else? Of our guests last night, someone might footnote “A well-known painter whose subject was often the marshes in Maine,” though mine would read, “The painter’s wife asked him to consider two things when getting a dog: not a large dog, not a white dog. Their dog is very large and white.” Leo Lerman was himself so astonishingly astute (read him on Susan Sontag), but the footnote pas de deux with Stephen Pascal or others who contributed to this book is perfect: a mixture of information, implied amusement, judicious word choices that subtly convey commentary. It’s the book I’ll read aloud to houseguests, sparing them the audio of Mel Gibson’s phone call to his ex-girlfriend Oksana that we taped from the Internet before access to it quickly disappeared. (If you know what I’m talking about, imagine the footnote to the next generation for that one).
P.S. “Acknowledgements” can be most informative, as in Levi Johnston’s (no, I’m not going to footnote him) Deer in the Headlights. From Levi: “The Cowans had seen me out there on TV, read about me–and thought I was getting the shaft. I already knew I had to do something before I was suffocated by half-truths and outright lies.” From the Cowans: “This book was researched, organized, and written on a tight schedule.”
Oh, but that tragedy/comedy is all so … last summer. Move on immediately to The Grand Surprise, which was written over a lifetime by a keen observer and world-class self-doubter who took Proust as his model, a book beautifully edited, assembled, and produced.
Ann Beattie’s story “Janus” was included in John Updike’s The Best American Short Stories of the Century.