The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

Mister Sun

June 19, 2015 | by

Albert_Anker_-_Knabenbildnis_(02)

Albert Anker, Portrait of a Boy, nineteenth century.

Like many small children, my brother was an accomplished con artist. And as is often the case with little boys, his manipulations were most effective when applied to his mother. I can particularly recall one bit of business he’d pull between the ages of about three and five, when we were at the market and he didn’t feel like walking. He’d gaze up at her beseechingly, bat his eyelashes, and simper, “I’ll carry your bundles if you carry me!”

By this point, I had decisively lost my looks: at seven I was a scrawny, buck-toothed gnome with a waxen complexion and a mullet, usually stalking around in pantaloons and a sunbonnet. Charlie, on the other hand, was still cherubic. Read More »

Say Your Prayers

June 18, 2015 | by

christopherrobin

Christopher Robin Milne with Winnie the Pooh in 1928.

Christopher Robin Milne’s first two memoirs, The Enchanted Places and The Path Through the Trees, are in the canon of great ambivalence books. Perhaps you’ve read that Christopher Robin, as A. A. Milne’s son and muse, grew to loathe his fame and the hordes of Pooh fanatics who stalked him even as an adult. (Milne fils supported himself as a successful bookseller; all the royalties went into a trust fund for his disabled daughter.) “It seemed to me almost that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders,” he wrote, “that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with the empty fame of being his son.”

But the books don’t read as an angry indictment so much as an attempt to grapple with his condition. Yes, there’s some record straightening—but the author’s sense of frank exploration is sympathetic, and it feels honest. Although he’d ultimately detach from his remote parents, his feelings are complex, and he describes his experiences with sensitivity and nuance. Milne died in 1996; in later life, he’d even come to embrace his father’s legacy, gamely showing up at the occasional official event coming to appreciate the love of nature bestowed by his Sussex childhood. Read More »

Queen o’ the May

May 1, 2015 | by

Proteus_1887_The_Elfin_May-Pole_Float

The Elfin May-Pole, a Mardi Gras float design for Krewe of Proteus, New Orleans, 1887.

The other day, I received the sweetest note from an old neighbor of my family’s commenting on the beauty of spring in the town where I grew up. She recalled something I’d done many years ago: “The first year I lived here, you walked up and down the street, perhaps alone, perhaps with a friend, on May 1, to celebrate May Day. Perhaps you left a little bunch of flowers by my door?”

Perhaps I did. In any case, I’m going to guess that I was alone. I can’t imagine anyone joining me in this practice. I’d like to say it was rooted in some precocious notion of workers’ solidarity, but in fact my touchstone was more Kate Greenaway than International Socialism. (Especially given the maypole and hurdy-gurdy I requested for my eighth birthday.) Read More »

Shying

January 27, 2015 | by

Hermann_Kaulbach_Die_Schuchterne

Hermann von Kaulbach, Die Schuchterne, 1909.

One of the great sacrifices of adulthood is giving up shyness. Even if it’s been a defining characteristic since childhood, a constant companion through early life, at a certain point it is a luxury we cannot afford. So far as the world is concerned, we are all outgoing, delighted to be here, happy to see you. We can’t run away when we get to the door.

There are moments that change our lives. Sometimes big, conscious decisions, other times a word, a missed train, the last five minutes of a party. I can only remember one such, consciously. It was reading a quote by Penelope Keith: “Shyness is just egoism out of its depth.” Read More »

Obstacle Course

January 16, 2015 | by

The perils of growing up surrounded by books.

books

Illustration: Mark Fearing

This month marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of The Threepenny Review. They’re celebrating with Table Talk from the Threepenny Review, a new book collecting a hundred essays from their Table Talk column—a casual, intellectually curious series first launched by Leonard Michaels in 1990, with subjects ranging from Emily Dickinson and rats to prominent holes in Kansas. This piece, by Javier Marías, appeared in their Winter 2011 issue.

Like all the other apartments I’ve ever lived in, the apartment in which I spent my childhood was full of books. However, the word full doesn’t really come near the truth; neither do the words crammed or crowded, because not only was every wall covered with shelves (each of which was packed with volumes from every imaginable century), but the books also sometimes served as rugs, tables, sofas, chairs, and even, almost, beds. I don’t mean that there was no furniture in the apartment and that we sat on piles of books or ate from other still taller piles—with a consequent disquieting sensation of constant instability—but that the rugs, tables, sofas, seats, and even beds were often buried beneath vast tomes: for example, the complete and very abundant works of the late-Renaissance philosopher Francisco Suárez. I remember those in particular because, on one occasion, I had to wrestle for hours with the philosophers Suárez and Condillac in order to make a large enough space on the floor to play with my toy soldiers. Bear in mind that my size at the time (I was seven or eight) didn’t really equip me for the easy removal of those large seventeenth- or eighteenth-century volumes obstructing my innocent games.

In fact, for myself and my three brothers, the house was one long obstacle course, almost two hundred yards long, the obstacles always taking the form of books. That is why, from an early age, I became used to negotiating the words of the great philosophers and writers, with the inevitable result that I have a deep-rooted lack of respect for anyone who writes, myself included. It still surprises me when I see how other people (especially politicians and commentators) kowtow to writers or else fight to appear in photos accompanied by some scribe or other, or when the state rushes to give succor to ailing, ruined poets, privileging them with a treatment that only heaps humiliation on equally ruined or ailing street cleaners, businessmen, waiters, lawyers, and cobblers. My scant respect for the trade to which I belong (from the most ancient of academicians to the most youthful of libelists) derives from a childhood home in which, as I have said, I grew used to mistreating and misusing almost all the seminal texts from the history of culture. Having too much respect for the kind of individuals who partially soured my childhood and invaded the territory occupied by my thrilling games of bottle-top soccer would seem to me masochistic in the extreme. Read More »

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The Other Side of the Face

January 2, 2015 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

Wagstrom-Thomas

When I consider the neck, the first things that spring to mind are guillotines, beheadings, executions. Which does seem a little strange, since we live in a country where executions do not take place, there are no guillotines, and beheading is thus an entirely marginal phenomenon in the culture. Nevertheless, if I think neck, I think, chop it off.

This may simply be because the neck leads a hidden existence in the shadow of the face, that it never assumes a place of privilege in our thoughts about ourselves, and only enters the stage in these most extreme situations which, though they no longer occur in our part of the world, still proliferate in our midst, given the numerous decapitations in fiction. But I think it runs deeper than that. The neck is a vulnerable and exposed part of the body, perhaps the most vulnerable and exposed, and our experience of this is fundamental, even without a sword hanging over us. In this sense, it is related to the fear of snakes or crocodiles, which may as well appear in people living on the Finnmarksvidda plateau as in Central Africa, or for that matter, the fear of heights, which can lie dormant in people who have never seen anything other than plains and sand dunes, lowlands and swamps, fields and meadows.

Fear is archaic, it is embedded in the body, in its purest form untouchable to thought, and it is there to keep us alive. There are other vulnerable parts of the body, the heart being perhaps the most obvious, but when I think of the heart, I don’t think of it being pierced by a javelin or a spear or a bullet; that would be absurd. No, the heart fills me with thoughts of life and force, and if vulnerability and fear are involved, it is no more than a mild concern that one day it will simply stop beating. This must be because the heart belongs to the front of the body, the front we turn to the world, and always keep in check, since we can see what lies ahead of us, we can see what is coming, and take our precautions. The heart feels safe. That the neck is in fact just as safe, since we live in a world where people no longer carry swords, makes no difference to the feeling of vulnerability, it is archaic and closely linked to the fact that the neck belongs to the reverse side of the body, it is always turned toward what we cannot see and cannot control. The fear of everything we cannot see converges on the neck, and if in earlier times it used to be associated with physical violence, the most pressing association now is its figurative sense, which lives on in the social realm, in expressions like being attacked from the rear, getting it in the neck, watch your back, having eyes in the back of your head, being spoken about behind your back. Read More >>