My mother makes a match.
My mother was open-minded about the boys I brought home. She was, in fact, oblivious to any of their flaws. In high school, in Philadelphia, my platinum-haired boyfriend, Billy, who walked with a strut and stole cars, OD’d in our basement under my black-light poster of Jimi Hendrix; Mom was fine about my visits to him in the locked ward in the Quaker mental hospital across the street from us on Roosevelt Boulevard. My next boyfriend, Randy, a whimsical outpatient with a genius IQ at the same hospital—we met on the bus; he was coming from prep school—got permission to have dinner with us one evening and afterward played with my gerbil. Randy blurted that he hallucinated perpetually because of all the LSD he’d taken and that now he was on Thorazine, Elavil, and a third prescription I can’t recall. My mother’s only comment: he should trim his nails.
She did seem to cotton on to my Mormon suitor in college (my only vice was tea) but criticized his piano playing as “stiff.” She did not seem disturbed when four years later I had a “dancer/artist” boyfriend in sex therapy (“You’re sexually repulsive to me,” he’d confided, “but don’t take it personally, all women are”), and she said nothing disparaging about his successor, an alcoholic Columbia University student/construction worker who accidentally burned, hoping to keep warm during a cold snap, all the savings he’d hidden in his never-used oven. He once showed up drunk at four A.M. with a lipstick-swished cheek and confessed he’d kissed another woman who’d bought him a cabbage, but it was me he really loved, he said, and then punched a hole in my door. Mom remained mute when I confided I’d met, in Egypt, a much younger French Algerian paratrooper named Karim, even when I revealed that he would call me long distance from Marseilles and never talk—simply whisper my name and breathe for twenty minutes, or play a tape of music he’d written. My bass-player roommate at that time, Sara, once quipped, “Karim’s mother’s not going to be very happy when she sees that phone bill.” Read More
They lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side. Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains. She could pause on the way to listen to the rain on the metal roof, look out across the city as it lit its lights, or just linger for the pleasure of it.
They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.
—Tove Jansson, “Videomania,” Fair Play
There are not many really good books that portray functional relationships. Certainly not the relationships of artists. Well, that’s not a shocker—happy families, as we are told, are all alike. Fair Play, Tove Jansson’s 1982 portrait of a partnership, is an exception.
Fair Play is based on Jansson’s relationship with the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she shared a life, and a home, for some forty years. If you have read Jansson’s classic Summer Book, certain things about Fair Play will be familiar: the island setting, the spareness, the less-is-more portrait of human connection. These things will be familiar even to those who only know Jansson from her most famous works, like Finn Family Moomintroll. (Indeed, Pietilä was the inspiration for the competent Moomin character Too-Ticky.) Read More
For what we suppose to be our love or our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion. It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multiplicity they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity. —Swann’s Way
Regret is a waste of time. Everybody knows that. But there are still times when I regret the energy I wasted through many years of undermining my boyfriends’ exes.
I was young and jealous and insecure. Even at the time it felt bad. But in low moments, I would hear the poison oozing out of me, petty and pathetic and sad. “I’ve always thought people who said they preferred early Fleetwood Mac were trying a little hard,” I might remark, idly, while looking at records. Because six months ago he had mentioned in passing that his old girlfriend felt that way!
Perhaps you’ve read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, or the volumes of poetry she wrote (some with her partner, Valentine Ackland). Lolly Willowes, her best-known work, is a sly novel about a spinster who takes up witchcraft, and well worth seeking out. But my favorite, and the one that’s been on my mind lately, is her 1967 biography of T. H. White, a small masterpiece of humanity.
White, born in 1906 and known to his friends as Tim, was the author of the Arthurian epic The Once and Future King and a number of successful sci-fi titles. A former teacher, he was prone to passionate enthusiasms—falconry, snakes, plans—and wrote a memoir about his experience training a goshawk. Townsend Warner captures his boundless excitement about these things, his humor, his kindness. But more than anything, this is a portrait of loneliness. White had no known relationships with men or women. Townsend Warner speculates that White was “a homosexual and a sado-masochist,” although others disagree on the question of his sexuality. In any case, he was profoundly alone; Townsend Warner wrote, “Notably free from fearing God, he was basically afraid of the human race.”
He did love his dog, an Irish Setter called Brownie. Townsend Warner writes extensively about his bond with Brownie, the love he could not express in other facets of his life. Upon Brownie’s unexpected death, he wrote the following heartbreaking letter to his friend David “Bunny” Garnett, presented in its entirety on the Futility Closet blog. Read this only if you are feeling emotionally tough: Read More
Leonard Cohen in love.
“Desperation is the mother of poetry.”
Like most people, I remember the first time I had sex pretty well. I can recall the surprisingly adept flirting I carried off beforehand, and the moment of pleasant shock when she kissed me. I remember how we stayed in bed until three the next day and how when we finally got up, faint from hunger, we went to eat at a greasy spoon that had a little jukebox by each table. I have no idea what I ordered, but I do remember that she got a grilled cheese sandwich. In the next year and a half that we were together, I don’t know if she ever ate another one.
We all have memories like that, jumping out of oblivion like buoys in the water. The facts might be fuzzy, but the moments are clear. Leonard Cohen describes such a memory in his first novel, The Favorite Game, published in 1963, when he was twenty-nine:
What did she look like that important second?
She stands in my mind alone, unconnected to the petty narrative. The color of the skin was startling, like the white of a young branch when the green is thumb-nailed away. Nipples the color of bare lips. Wet hair a battalion of glistening spears laid on her shoulders.
She was made of flesh and eyelashes.
Cohen, who turns eighty on Sunday, is exceptionally good at drawing out those moments of sexual crystallization. It’s a skill that, along with his gravelly voice and poems about women’s bodies, has given him a reputation for being a “ladies’ man.” Judging by the adoring crowds at his shows, it’s a reputation he deserves.
Yet it isn’t success with women that accounts for Cohen’s particular vision, even if his fame as a lover may have, over time, borne the fruits of self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather, his work is shot through with fears of physical deficiency and sexual deprivation, loneliness and insecurity. “He could not help thinking that … he wasn’t tall enough or straight, that people didn’t turn to look at him in street-cars, that he didn’t command the glory of the flesh,” he writes of his autobiographical protagonist in The Favorite Game. Decades later, in his 2006 poetry collection Book of Longing, Cohen confessed: “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke / that caused me to laugh bitterly / through the ten thousand nights / I spent alone.” Read More