A Week in Culture: Peter Terzian, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Terzian’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


8:00 A.M. Help the convalescent Caleb into a car-service limo to JFK, where he’ll board a flight to Rochester. This afternoon he gives his Melville lecture. We’ll rendezvous in Albany, where I grew up and where my father still lives, tomorrow: Caleb will fly in from Rochester in the afternoon, I’ll drive up from Brooklyn with Toby in the evening. On Saturday morning the three of us will drive to a rented cottage in Deer Isle, Maine, for a belated summer vacation. “Pack sweaters,” we are told by just about everyone.

8:57 A.M. Shave with Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” playing in my head. Sometimes I try to trace a seemingly random song in my head to its origin—a stray thought, a phrase in a book, something overheard—but I fail with this one. I haven’t been lying in any burned out basements lately.

9:27 A.M. On the subway, read Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy—I’m toggling back and forth between this and Poser on my commute. There are a lot of animals in Bedford’s autobiographical novel, which is set in fin de siècle Berlin, and sometimes she holds back the fact that they’re animals. In one section, we’re told that a new character, Robert, is in the kitchen breaking plates, and two pages later he climbs into a young girl’s lap—Robert, we discover, is actually a monkey. In the passage I read today, the narrator describes the irritable donkey she had as a child who is “fond of music full of brass, and it was for her benefit that the gramophone was set a-trigger at tea-time under the lime tree.”

12:58 P.M. Take the subway on my lunch break to Chelsea, to see an exhibit of new work by David Shrigley at Anton Kern Gallery. This is the second time I’ve seen this show. I went to the opening two weeks ago with a couple of friends, but split off to talk to David, whom I interviewed last year for a travel article about the Glasgow arts scene, then had to rush through the gallery to catch up. David is tall and gentlemanly. The Glasgow trip was my last travel story, and I’ve been feeling misty-eyed about it lately. I told David that Glasgow was my favorite city, and he said, “Well, that’s ridiculous.” Today I want to spend more time with the show, when it’s less crowded. The centerpiece is a row of ten pairs of empty black ceramic boots. A row of his funny drawings lines the walls, and hanging outside the building is a desperate-looking placard that says, “IT’S ALL GOING VERY WELL NO PROBLEM AT ALL.” There’s also a wall with small, protuberant digits beneath a model of the word God. My favorite thing here, though, might be a sculpture of a rib cage set on the floor in a circle of light from the skylight above, which I find inexplicably moving.

1:34 P.M. Think about how I don’t think about Pavement when I’m not reading encomiums to Pavement shows.

7:05 P.M. Get my hair cut at Whistle, a salon in the East Village. “Um … so do you know this actor Andrew Garfield?” Will, my haircutter, does! I come out with a modified, less actorly updo.

9:04 P.M. Caleb calls. The lecture was a success, the people at Geneseo lovely.

10:05 P.M. What to read over a week in Maine? First, the books I’m halfway through: A Legacy, Poser. Then some magazines: the new Paris Review, the new London Review of Books with a piece about creative-writing programs by Elif Batuman I’ve been hearing about, last week’s London Review with the Alan Bennett story I never finished. And now comes the joy of selecting un-begun books from the shelf. I settle upon three short ones, as I had intended: two New York Review Books Classics—James Schuyler’s Alfred and Guinevere, one of Caleb’s favorites, and Maria Dermoût’s The Ten Thousand Things, which my friend Jeff Rotter has praised in a Facebook post; and Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing, in a tiny hardcover Bloomsbury Classic edition with a hand-painted cover. I’ll bring The Oxford Book of English Verse, of course, for romantic reading over breakfasts studded with wild Maine blueberries. And then the big question: to bring Ulysses or leave it behind? For vacation, shouldn’t I pack “pleasure” reading? But Ulysses gives me great pleasure—the kind of pleasure found in difficulty. But shouldn’t I bring books that don’t require entire other books of annotation? I end up voting in favor—a quiet Maine cottage seems like the right place for a distraction-free geek-out.


4:57 A.M. Wake up, anxious about packing left to do, three-and-a-half-hour-long car trip tonight—if I don’t get enough sleep, will I be bleary-eyed on the road? Also, am I bringing the right books? Also, I’ll never memorize that damn Shakespeare poem.

5:26 A.M. Check e-mail, read message about forthcoming soccer game in Prospect Park. Since late summer I’ve been playing a pickup game with some friends every weekend. My only regret about going on vacation is that I’ll miss the next game. The friends I play with are mostly literary types, and we’re exceedingly polite with one another—“Ooh, sorry, I kicked that so far.” After games we do things like sit on the grass and discuss New York Review of Books articles.

6:25 A.M. Get back in bed, try to sleep.

6:26 A.M. There’s no way I’m going to be able to sleep.

6:42 A.M. Have I packed enough to read? One wants options, at least. I throw Sebald’s Austerlitz into the book bag. And shouldn’t I bring something a little Maine-y? Thoreau’s 7:12 A.M. But we’re not going to the woods; we’re going to the coast.

7:44 A.M. Eat two strips of toasted fennel-raisin semolina bread with peanut butter; imagine that they are not unlike the strips of bread with Gorgonzola that Leopold Bloom eats for lunch in Ulysses.

7:37 P.M. Drive to Albany, listen to specially prepared iPod mix that includes two songs from the new Arcade Fire album, downloaded from blogs, that I find just OK; a gorgeous, never-released duet between Jeff Buckley and Elizabeth Frazer of the Cocteau Twins, “All Flowers in Time Bend Toward the Sun,” also downloaded from a blog; covers of Vampire Weekend songs by Tracey Thorn of Everything But the Girl and Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens; and the new album by the Innocence Mission, a gentle Christian band from Pennsylvania. But I’m most excited to hear a new set of seven beautiful and jittery songs by my all-time favorites, Throwing Muses. The Season Sessions: Fall, released to coincide with lead singer Kristin Hersh’s new memoir, Rat Girl, is a collection of rerecordings of some of the highlights of the band’s twenty-five-year career. When musicians cover their own songs, the new versions can sometimes end up flat walk-throughs. Not these—Kristin’s voice is as passionate as on the originals, and the trio plays with the energy of a hundred suns.

10:42 P.M. Arrive at my dad’s house, where Caleb waits with mozzarella-and-tomato sandwich fixings for me. Find a copy of another Maine-y book, The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett, and throw it in my book bag.


10:30 A.M. Leave for Maine; Toby gnaws on a massive beef leg bone in the back seat. Make our way through the forty or so CDs grabbed from a large repository in the closet of my childhood bedroom. Listen to a few songs off Pavement’s Wowee Zowee and decide I don’t like it much better than I did fifteen years ago.

11:16 A.M. Can’t find the right CD to listen to. An overproduced Roches album from the early nineties, a k. d. lang album of covers of songs by Canadians set to string-heavy arrangements—no wonder I stuck these in the closet.

11:31 A.M. Discuss “Bird on a Wire” with Caleb.

P: Do you like this song?

C: I was just thinking it’s one of my favorites.

P: Why do you like it so much?

C: It has such beautiful imagery. I like the whole spirit of it.

P: [Silence.]

C: You don’t like the bad-boy elements.

P: [More silence.]

12:32 P.M. P: But lots of songs have beautiful imagery.

4:07 P.M. Drive through Maine. Many pointed firs.

5:12 P.M. All this time in the car, we could be memorizing Sonnet 73! Alas, the Oxford Book of English Verse is buried deep in the trunk.

9:15 P.M. Hum Kate Jacobs’s version of the sonnet, then think of making a mix CD of contemporary songs made from lyrics that can be found in the Oxford anthology—Jeff Buckley’s “Corpus Christi Carol,” Fairport Convention’s “Sir Patrick Spens,” Saint Etienne’s “Western Wind”… That’s all I come up with. Four songs, not enough for a mix.

10:08 P.M. Investigate books in rental cottage. V. S. Pritchett is here, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Nicholson Baker—I probably didn’t need to pack any books at all. Caleb finds a WPA Guide to Maine from 1937 that he says is too valuable to be left in a rental cottage. I read about how granite was once a big industry in this area; the Triborough Bridge is built of pink granite quarried here. “The island is rich in legends of sea captains who made fortunes in slave-running and smuggling, and of the lawless adventures of roustabouts and human derelicts.” Nice. Find a moldering paperback of Ulysses. Somehow I find it comforting to know that that two men I’ve been following for months as they walk around Dublin can be found even here.


9:07 A.M. Stand outside the closed Deer Isle Library with my laptop, picking up the library’s wi-fi signal, downloading e-mail and The New York Times. Peer in the window at the “B” shelves of the fiction section to see what they have. Lots of Sandra Brown. There’s Humboldt’s Gift, though.

11:08 A.M. Caleb suffers relapse of cold, lies on couch under blanket.

P: Whenever Jonathan Franzen is asked in an interview what books he loves, he always recommends Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders. There’s a copy here on the shelf.

C: I recommend you go get me my lunch.

4:23 P.M. Lie on the comfortable cottage couch for hours, hours, reading a couple pages of Ulysses with its endless annotations, then a couple chapters of Poser. The kitchen clock ticks. Read, doze, wake myself up, read more, doze. Discuss with Caleb getting a long, doughy couch to replace the cramped love seat in our Brooklyn apartment.

5:07 P.M. Caleb shouts from upstairs that he’s come across an 1807 edition of James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. What will he find next? A Gutenberg Bible?

6:30 P.M. Walk Toby through the twilight of the day to the cove at the back of the house. Yesterday, coming in, we watched the sunset fade in the west, but tonight the clouds have sealed up the sky. Toby springs like a jackrabbit through the tall grass. Inside the house, the lamp light doesn’t look like much, just plain light, but from outside, against a composition of dark colors, from watery green to slate blue to ash, it glows like fire.

7:02 P.M. Remember that I never finished memorizing that sonnet.

Peter Terzian is the editor of Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives and the writer of a blog called Earworms. He is an editor at Elle Decor.