The idea for the following feature evolved from an interview in which David Jackson reported that, using a Ouija board, he and the poet James Merrill had contacted Truman Capote in the afterlife, a place called the Hedge. The Hedge would seem to be a kind of semipermeable screen through which the dead can peer at human life as well as eavesdrop upon the affairs of higher heaven that only indirectly concern them. Presiding, as hostess and chief of protocol, is Alice B. Toklas. Since everyone wants to talk all at once, she decides—as she did in Gertrude Stein’s Parisian salon—who should approach the tea table and in what order. Capote had little to say about his “life” in the other world; heaven was too “black” for him. But he was proud to belong to the Plato Club (founded by its namesake, who periodically looks in) where he and other writers of quality could gossip and worry about their ever-fluctuating reputations on earth. His comments, however few, inspired an editor at the Review, Antonio Weiss, to write Jackson and Merrill a note suggesting a Paris Review-type interview at the Hedge with various writers who had slipped through our fingers over the years—a proposal viewed by some here as too frivolous an exercise for so old and respectable a journal. To the editors’ surprise and delight, Merrill and Jackson agreed. Last summer, for nine afternoons in a row, they sat down at their Ouija board and with Miss Toklas’s flawless instinct to guide them succeeded in capturing quite a pride of literary lions for our pages. The Ouija board, of course, has been used by Merrill (with Jackson’s help) off and on since 1953 when Frederick Buechner gave him one for his birthday. Its most noted manifestation is the book-length trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover, individual volumes of which won Merrill the Pulitzer Prize (1976), his second National Book Award (1979), and—this time for the completed poem—the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1983. Merrill, in his 1983 Paris Review interview, described how he and Jackson use their homemade Ouija board (the commercial ones are “too cramped”): “[David] puts his right hand lightly on the cup, I my left, leaving the right to transcribe, and away we go. We get, oh, five hundred to six hundred words an hour. Better than gasoline ... David is the subconscious shaper of the message itself, the ‘Hand,’ as they call him. Of the two of us, he’s the spokesman for human nature, while I’m the ‘Scribe,’ the one in whose words and images the message gets expressed.” The resulting transcripts look like “first-grade compositions. Drunken lines of capitals lurching across the page, gibberish until they’re divided into words and sentences.” The point of all this apparatus was to tap the collective unconscious (thus “multiplying by five,” as Victor Hugo said of his seances, the mediums’ natural powers) or simply to be caught up in a process of “thinking, puzzling, resisting, testing the messages against everything we knew or thought possible.” For this interview, the all-capital-letters style of the seance transcripts has been replaced with more conventional capitalization, but some other traces of the shades’ Ouija-board abbreviations—such as the use of ampersands, initials and numerals—have been retained. Some identifications and editorial comments by Merrill appear in brackets. Readers of Sandover will remember—along with such non-human interlocutors as the didactic, easily ruffled peacock Mirabell and Unice the pure-hearted unicorn from Atlantis—a host of distinguished shades: W. H. Auden, Maria Callas, Richard Wagner, Wallace Stevens, not to mention Nefertiti, Homer and many others. In the present interview Miss Toklas has but to say the word and to the Ouija board on a round white table in Connecticut flock Gertrude Stein, Colette, Jean Genet, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bowen and Henry James. Live guests in the Jackson-Merrill household at the time—Skip, an artist, and Harry, a professor of Classics at Washington & Lee—also take a hand in the proceedings. Unice and Mirabell keep an eye on things. It should be mentioned that in a letter accompanying the interview Merrill included a mild caveat: “A lot of their talk gave us pause—so much militant sexuality. I suppose I took comfort recalling that in the Tibetan Book of the Dead souls who haven’t attained Nirvana may be beset by visions of copulating figures; these are thought to attend the soul’s next incarnation ici-bas.” July 4, 1991 A brilliant afternoon in Stonington. DJ & JM—Hand and Scribe, as we are known in the other world—at the Ouija board, ready to write down the messages spelt out by the old overturned willowware cup.

Alice B. Toklas

Dear boys I too am poised with pad & pen.

James Merrill

Did you follow The Paris Review interviews in your lifetime?

Toklas

I was on the way out when they began. I know them from periodic references up here. Most writers feel that any (good or bad) publication mentioning or printing their work is highly worthwhile.

David Jackson

Excuse me, I’m trying to light this cigarette.

Merrill

Alice understands. She gave up smoking at eighty-six.

Toklas

And still look on with envy. Shall we get down to work?

Merrill

You were with Gertrude Stein when she died. Were those really her last words: “In that case, what is the question?”

Toklas

Well it nearly was that.

Gertrude Stein

[Advancing.] I stammered you see, & darling Alice put it right.

Merrill

When we last spoke you said that, after your career as Gertrude Stein, you'd had a brief life as an Argentine gaucho “to straighten out your gender.” May we hear more about that?

Stein

It was far rougher than one had foreseen. My poor fundament suffered. Sometimes even the horses seemed oversexed. Yet it shed light upon my buried libido.

Merrill

Your libido went underground after that early novella. Things As They Are. Its Jamesian donnée of American girls abroad didn't keep it from being shot through by moments of uncanny frankness. Some critics wish your later works had carried this further.

Stein

At that time, dear boy, nobody went (in print) further. In the 20s sex (seemingly free) still had to be hidden under the guise of metaphors & other literary devices. We watch & listen with amazement to current political efforts to “clean up” sex.

Merrill

After that male life on horseback, do you see yourself as an arbiter of sexual politics, like Tiresias?

Stein

I feel more like Christopher Columbus. A continent of feminists striving for equality. Though conservative myself, I agree with some of their gender agenda. I would remove words such as spokesman from all printed matter & substitute speaker.

Merrill

Do minds change in heaven as they do on earth?

Stein

Here a sublime opacity reigns, transparent only when focusing on a probable candidate for election to our midst. Not well put. I echo poor Wystan in needing pen & paper. Is that not the answer for writers?

Merrill

What was the question?

Stein

O dear.

Jackson

What is your view of Hemingway now?

Stein

He now hoes a field in Argentina. We did not find him qualified.

Jackson

You kicked Papa out of Heaven!

Merrill

He followed you to Paris, why not to the pampas? Was there a scene? Who is “we”?

Stein

Much huffing & puffing, but the big bad wolf exited with a most female shriek. In the case of writers “we” are a revolving committee. Currently: Me, Plato, Sophocles, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bowen, Cocteau & Henry James.

Merrill

Who appoints the Committee—Mother Nature?

Stein

The Mother of us all (blessed be Her name) is quite indifferent to human matters unless, as in the case of the rain forest, they impede natural activity. The next Committee will be chosen by us. Us, do you hear! Alice often cluck-clucks when we refuse entrance as with Himingway [sic] But I say “Dear girl, heaven is not for the shouters.”

Merrill

Who was on the Committee when you died?

Stein

Emily Bronte & naturally our most prestigious . . . guess?

Merrill

Tolstoy? . . . Jack London? . . . George Eliot?

Stein

Bingo!

Merrill

Which of your works do you still care for?

Stein

I think a little-known volume of poetry: Stanzas in Meditation?

Merrill

Oh yes—a favorite of John Ashbery's. I've glanced at it.

Stein

Naughty Scribe. These speak, as does all poetry worth reading, from the heart & are regulated by rhythm & form.

Skip

[Speaking up. ] How do you feel about the destruction of the traditional center of art in our century? Abstract expressionism was out to eradicate the center—an impossible task, since the center is an omniscient essence, like a Tibetan mandala, infinite yet constricted, which isn't to say—

Stein

Who has been listening?

Merrill

Let me present our houseguest, a young painter.

Stein

In art there has never been a center, only a perhaps. If we speak of "centers" I think of the human mind, asleep or awake. In my time we never mentioned "centers." The word suggested genitalia.

Skip

Like your rose?

Stein

The rose (a piece I am fearfully bored by) is in effect the mind.

Jackson

Was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas written by you or by Alice?

Stein

By us. She holding the pencil would say "Now let us (us!) take up your food problem." My part was looking at her sweet face bent over writing & thanking whomever for her being. Result: Some pages about A’s cooking.

Jackson

Is there anything you'd like us to ask?

Stein

“How do you feel, Miss Stein, about the new French prime minister?” Answer: MSerable. She is, as are I must say most Frenchwomen, hopelessly female: not prolesbian (even though vast numbers practice it). Why even Margaret Thatcher allowed her husband to photograph her kissing her cook. It was not a comradely kiss.

Merrill

What corners of the United States do you keep an eye on?

Stein

New York, San Francisco . . . I look for signs of human compassion. It delights me to see the homeless cuddled together for warmth.

Jackson

You're delighted by their plight?

Merrill

No, no. It's not the homelessness that delights her but—

Stein

Not so fast, JM. It is a statement, strong & effective, about capitalism. The statement will not be heard for 10 years. Then the politics will change & the world will be much warmer.

Jackson

She's talking about the greenhouse effect?

Stein

Yes. We devised it (rather, Mr, Auden devised it) as a warning. [W.H. Auden, instead of being reincarnated or sitting on committees, bequeathed his poetic energies to the mineral or geological realms. The rise in volcanic activity over the past years is, for example, his doing. ] Not the end of the world. Mr. A. will stop the polar melt in time, & meanwhile the causes dramatically staged will have disappeared.

Jackson

It's true, you know. I read that volcanic ash in the atmosphere serves as a cooling agent. So God doesn't mean to polish off the earth?

Merrill

Shouldn't we steer clear of theology?

Stein

Let Miss Stein summarize! a) God Biology did indeed create our world but his sister, Nature, rules it. b) Their most prized (ahem) creations move upward to heaven. Others are reborn. c) The system of reincarnation is therefore correct. Period.

Merrill

I only meant that in this interview the spotlight would be trained to better effect on yourself than on the universe.

Stein

Do admit it reveals a charming microcosm [Sweeps out. ]

Jackson

Is Alice still with us?

Toklas

With pencil & pad. Dear Jamey & Mr. Livingstone [Her name for David Jackson. ] ask her tomorrow about Colette. We like your artist friend. A demain.

Unice

[Our unicorn gatekeeper. ] Sirs! I have been eavesdropping & must add that I for one would love Miss Stein on my back, even with a whip! July 5

Merrill

How come Alice has pencil and paper and not you?

Stein

Alice did all the paperwork. I dictated, she criticized. My modus was often non-operandi. My dear one would say “We stopped at ‘near.’ Go on!” I was & am (as Alice says) vastly egocentric.

Merrill

How much ego should a writer have?

Stein

Quantities.

Merrill

Alice, do you agree?

Toklas

Now, my dear boy, most of GS's writings sprang from a rural American past.

Merrill

Her life never sounded very rural to me. Childhood years in Europe, Harvard with Santayana and William James . . . Or are we talking about an idyllic vision? The ego-nurturing conversational eternity of a back porch overlooking—

Stein

Ha ha, cornfields! Do not forget the Paris atmosphere. Like the beatniks we saw literary life as commercially motivated & tried to untie that anchor. Language back then was lashed to advertising, political rhetoric & nonsense. We (and I mean all of the 20s world of creativity) tried to use words to really say something hard & nasty.

Merrill

Hardness and nastiness become devices, too. Sometimes I suspect that the intensest readers of the avant-garde are copywriters.

Stein

We knew they were. They didn't copy Henry James though, did they? Too high a style even for them. I once met him, you know. I said: "Master (he loved that), we think you should not hide your leanings."

Merrill

Did he love that?

Stein

I think for the first & only time in his life he did a naughty thing. He turned, bent over & said “Kiss it.”

Merrill

Oh, come on!

Stein

O yes. Witnessed by a room full of people including darling Colette who approached him later & was heard to say: "Cher maitre, votre derriere n’est pas mai."

Jackson

Let's hear more about Colette. There was a French woman who came out of the closet.

Stein

I must admit (dear Alice knows this) she dazzled me. So marvelously irreverent. When the childish Academy was floundering around looking for "acceptable" male members she would send anonymous letters suggesting well-known queer performers. She persuaded some of us to make bonnets out of newspaper (the critical pages) and mail them to the Academy members.

Jackson

I suppose the bonnets were ignored.

Stein

No. A week later Colette received an anonymous top hat which she wore endlessly in cafes.

Jackson

You've stayed in posthumous touch?

Stein

O yes. She is a part-time member of the Plato Club. She says all organizations & the time given them must be limited.

Merrill

Did you like her books?

Stein

She is/was a masteress.

Merrill

Goodness, yes. Dialogues des Bêtes? She's inside the mind of those dogs and cats. How does she do it.?

Stein

We often joked that in a previous life she was a Scotch terrier & then horrors! found that she had been. Not a Scotch terrier but a bull.

Merrill

How many lives back?

Stein

One. Colette was her only human incarnation. Her former owner had been an English clergyman who practiced degrading things on her while reciting the psalms. When she discovered this (up here) she assumed a dog-begging position & arfed out "Le Seigneur est mon berger."

Merrill

Good training for her first marriage. Not to mention the literary background. Did you and she learn from each other as writers?

Stein

She taught me to look at words as musical notes. For example rose was middle C.

Merrill

And a rose with a thorn, C sharp?

Stein

Exactly. And I taught her to repeat. As a frog she had been taught that the French language was holy. I said “Ma chère, if language is your church you had better start singing in it.” The poor thing was bound to fashion, but even poor things change, and her last 2 works were & are musical.

Merrill

The Blue Lantern and The Evening Star?

Stein

Yes. Let me summon her.

Merrill

Madame Colette? Quel honneur pour nous!

Colette

Ah oui? Et pour moi quel plaisir.

Merrill

We'd better switch to English. You're at the mercy of our very spotty French.

Colette

Not at all. Your French is fascinating, a totally unique language.

Merrill

You understand, it's an interview. The emphasis will be on your life as a writer. Shoptalk, anything you like—

Colette

I never talked shop. Miss Stein said “Talking shop is being a shopkeeper.”

Merrill

What then?

Colette

Gossip! Have you heard the exact words Hemingway uttered when he met the laughing Entrance Committee? “I don't get the joke.” Miss Stein smiled: “You.”

Jackson

I don't get this joke. Why is Gertrude so down on Hemingway?

Merrill

Oh, you know, because he formed aspects of his style on hers and then attacked her after her death—those awful pages in A Moveable Feast, remember? Is Mile. Colette still with us? What was it like to work with Ravel?

Colette

Ravel worshiped Debussy & I think perhaps curbed his own style in favor of the master's. He forewent abstraction & pursued pastiche. I told him one day while we "worked" (he on the bottom for a change) "Poor Maurice, you must either do to Claude what you are now doing to me or try to turn your (covered) back on him."

Merrill

Very sensational, very French.

Colette

We after all taught you proper kissing. Ravel outlived Debussy & finally shook off much of D's impressionism.

Jackson

He didn't shake off Stravinsky. I just read a piece about their having to share a bed in a crowded Swiss town.

Colette

Maurice told a friend “Igor is very well endowed, I mean musically.”

Merrill

I must say, I don't recall such relentless sexual content in our seances of fifteen years ago. I'm beginning to think it stems from the geriatric fantasies of someone at this table.

Colette

(Hush, Scribe.)

Merrill

You knew Proust, of course.

Colette

As well as anyone could. He was a sad mamma's boy. We all adored his work. But except for the housekeeper-cook the poor wretch knew no women.

Merrill

Those society beauties? Mme. de Chevigne?

Colette

The countess was a drag queen, a detesticated youth who wore women's clothes from age 14.

Jackson

How did he get married?

Colette

The count was a great ravager of boys whose father (deeply ashamed) forced him to take a wife. She/he was in fact quite noble but his/her father drove him/her out.

Merrill

Here we are back at gender and language. You're inventing delicious fictions—I hope!—to dramatize their interaction.

Colette

Let us then speak tomorrow on nonsexual subjects {if we can). Au plaisir. July 6

Unice

Sirs! Ah Mile. Colette, she could ride me sidesaddle She flirts & I love it.

Merrill

How do our friends look?

Unice

Colette is 22, très chic in a suit of pale yellow silk by Schiaparelli, with blond bobbed hair. Miss Stein is . . . 30? Wearing denim coveralls over a rather garish checkered shirt.

Jackson

And Alice?

Unice

As always demure in a smock made of gingham.

Jackson

It just occurs to me—remember the horsehair sofa in rue Christine? I wonder how Uni feels about that.

Unice

I am thrilled that my race had a spot in such a parlor.

Colette

[Gliding in. ] Ton morceau de sucre, ma beaute?

Merrill

We were wondering what in life distressed you most.

Colette

A girlhood crush which turned out badly. Total rejection. For 6 years I could not even entertain the hope of meeting another. In time came my major bête noire.

Merrill

Proust says that the truths we learn when a lover leaves us are worth far more than the love itself.

Colette

Not in my case. It gave me a false message: "You, my girl, are not desirable."

Jackson

Who was the bête noire?

Merrill

Willy. That third-rate novelist she married? He saw what a gold mine she was and exploited her horribly—even to signing her books with his name.

Colette

But I must admit he began my life of writing. I would perhaps have ended up as a model. I loved being looked at. Directors kept shouting "Non, non, non! Pas ici! Pas maintenant!" I was the first female to strip totally on stage. The public flocked. But when I turned to writing they remembered & dismissed my work as trivial. Not, shall we say, clothed in a sufficient style. So you see, I & my friends were also revolutionaries!

Merrill

Not just Miss Stein and her friends. I do see. But did you think of your books as revolutionary?

Colette

I meant them to be. Do not forget you read them after thirty years of real revolution.

Merrill

And what most distresses you in life seen from your present vantage?

Colette

Animal torture & inhumanity mostly. The senior poet [Auden again—what isn't he into?] has come up with a splendid & difficult idea: to make gradual genetic adjustments in the animal world, resulting in species totally unrelated to the human being, therefore useless for experiment in the eyes of corporate funding. Looking & behaving just the same but with no comparable cell structure.

Merrill

Hmm . . . Being part animal is too good for the average man?

Colette

Tortured (as I was in my bulldog life) by someone who loved me & whom I loved, I was at least able to make the transition to full humanity in a single incarnation. Not so the slaughtered rats & monkeys who fill the gutters of your ghettos & the pockets of your drug lords. I am with Miss Stein in her concern for the minorities, the homeless & unfed.

Merrill

This is Genet's world, isn't it? Homeless himself, criminal, in love with Blacks, Arabs, Palestinians. He carried the revolution beyond language or manners. You knew him?

Colette

We all worshiped him. It was marvelous; as we stood protesting outside his prison Genet would appear in one window after another being chased by guards & discarding his uniform until voila! There he was laughing stark naked on a ledge. He was a hero, although what suffered I believe was his work. It became increasingly histrionic.

Merrill

One of the pitfalls of fame and age. You avoided it beautifully. (Help—I'm running out of questions.)

Jackson

What do you think of France's Prime Minister?

Colette

A nonfemale. She has consistently used her gender to rise to power & then put it down to conform to capitalists.

Jackson

We didn't know you were so political.

Merrill

The last play you saw was The Madwoman of Chaillot.

Colette

I am & was communist. Politics is the rarest form of human expression. It begins in the needs of people & races and moves subtly to the needs of leaders. It is very much like romantic love. Once the love object becomes a sexual outlet, the balance of power shifts. Leaders (look at today's world) see the people as their release, not themselves releasing the people. Unfortunately Marx & Lenin have been left behind.

Jackson

Lenin's being blamed for everything.

Colette

His history is that of victim to the very end. He protested Bolshevik treatment of Marx's ideas & was ignored & finally murdered. Yes, yes. Smothered while sedated by opium.

Jackson

[Coughing. ] I never heard that!

Colette

History is a labyrinth of distortion & pressures. One day pure leaderless communism will transpire. I must now return you to Ms. Alice. Au revoir et bonne chance.

Toklas

Mr. Livingstone, we have inspected your lungs & found you are unique: You have developed a third lung. Next Genet? But at present he is in Committee work.

Merrill

He's on the Committee, too? Who's being discussed? Someone we know?

Jackson

Howard Nemerov?

Toklas

Yes.

Merrill

Oh, he's bound to get in, don't you think?

Toklas

The majority like his work. But Gertrude is putting on airs. This Committee is her power trip; she antagonizes [pianissimo ] Mother Nature.

Merrill

Their voices are sometimes hard to tell apart.

Toklas

Indeed. So it is for me to put poor dear Gertrude down.

Merrill

You told us once about cutting off her long hair—how gently you did it, getting her used to its absence. A Delilah like you can certainly do that trick again.

Toklas

Now, now. What she needs is a scalping! But knowing her, she will find a gorgeous wig & carry on. Until tomorrow. I will be sure to have M. Genet ready. Dear twinkly-eyed Mirabell is peering over the Hedge & getting nasty looks from Committee members.

Jackson

We love you, Mirabell!

Mirabell

(And I you but shh!) July 7

Unice

Monsieur Jean Genet!

Genet

Ah chers amis! I would adore knowing about the ''scene."

Merrill

Well, this is the dining room of David's and my house in Connecticut. The tin dome overhead is really why we're here. That big white tower next door used to be a Baptist church.

Genet

No, I meant boys. In your country today.

Merrill

Oh. Well, you could begin by reading the complete works of your biographer, Edmund White. That will tell you more than we possibly could. He, by the way, showed me the first half of his manuscript. Have you been following it? Are you pleased?

Genet

Very. My one objection is that, being an excellent biographer, he sees the punishment of my "indiscretions" as French bigotry rather than the answer to my prayers. My whole life (as the enchantress Colette said) was spent trying to attract attention, as only an orphaned child would.

Jackson

He was an orphan?

Merrill

From the age of … six months, I think. His foster parents weren't peasants. They saw to his schooling and gave him a stable home life. Did he begin stealing then? I can't recall.

Genet

Yes! They did not understand my terrible need for love. So I "stole" but always left a clue & waited for one or the other to take me in his or her arms & say: Pauvre enfant, je comprends.

Merrill

So do we.

Genet

I spotted my first gorgeous male sailor once when I ran away to Marseilles. He was shirtless & urinating over the side.

Jackson

How old were you?

Genet

A stripling of 12. To attract his attention I crept up & took a perch from his fish pail, making sure my boot struck its side. He turned, I saw his beautiful member & fell on my knees. He came to me, took me by the shoulders & rubbed my face against it. I moaned with joy & tried to get it in my mouth but he cunningly dodged until I said "Please, please." And he turned & said "Follow me." We went below. There he made me do unspeakable (I joke) acts and then called a passing friend in. Before the afternoon passed, 5 members had crossed my lips. My life was set.

Merrill

Committee members must be poor company by comparison.

Genet

Yes. I think of returning to earth, as a fisherman's son! A sexless heaven is boring. I try to enliven our meetings but for the most part am tenderly hushed. Before us now is your friend [Howard Nemerov], a seemingly straight man. But I did manage to force an admission from him that he had once had great pleasure while on his back.

Merrill

If you meet in order to determine what writers enter heaven, or remain there, why is sex an issue at all?

Genet

We must find out how much knowledge each nominee holds. A chaste, sexually ignorant candidate would be useless to us.

Merrill

Why?

Genet

Because human life springs from sex & gender!

Merrill

George Eliot judged by different standards.

Genet

By ours, & the splendid Ms. Stein's, very sorry ones. Henry James for example struck many as cold & Victorian, but we divined correctly that he was sex-obsessed. He knew every male & female whore in London & Paris.

Merrill

Words fail us. Go on.

Jackson

You were wonderfully well preserved as an older man, to judge from photographs.

Genet

Incessant beauty applications. Even in prison I made mudpacks. They nicknamed me Dirtface. Prison was bliss. My escapade described by Mlle. Colette was really like my crying: See, see, see! I am available!

Merrill

And was fame, when it came, just another form of haute surveillance?

Genet

Indeed. It certainly pimped for me.

Merrill

What is the relation between sex and language?

Genet

Language on paper is like semen. It is an effort by the writer to be a father or a mother, even those who (fortunately or otherwise) are. When the writer is a woman this inner animus is male. When a man, it is like a fetus emerging, with or without pain.

Jackson

In short, creativity.

Genet

Not quite so curt, Hand. In short, a short story or lyric. At length The Making of Americans. [DJ coughs. ] Hand, my cough?

Merrill

Your cough?

Genet

Sounded like mine. Not just from cigarettes, from overexcitement. In the midst of orgasm I’d cough to such an extent that often my partner ejaculated simply from my body spasms.

Merrill

Have you particular affection for one of your books?

Genet

No. I feel each was spat out.

Merrill

They read as if they'd been a pleasure to write. Weren't they?

Genet

Yes. But the thrill was to anticipate their acceptance, even more, their rejection by so-called serious readers & critics.

Merrill

Like Colette being patronized. Because she'd appeared nude on stage her books had to be trivial. Because you were a criminal and a pervert your style couldn't be lucid. Doesn't one love to impersonate the kind of writer people dismiss? Those who take us at face value—into the shredder with them! We must keep testing our readers.

Genet

Exactly. The true writers always test, the nonwriters do not. Are we being literary enough?

Jackson

You certainly remained pretty sexy throughout your life.

Genet

Very few complaints. Only one: Proust. Met by chance at le comte de Perignon. A wine-family fortune. This their oldest son was on the point of being disowned when at an all-boy party he introduced me to a stiff-necked young man: "Marcel—Jean."

Merrill

Wait a minute—how old were you?

Genet

I was 16. Marcel … 35 ?

Merrill

You've gone too far. Proust was thirty-five when you were born. By the time you were sixteen he'd been dead for several years.

Genet

[Waving aside the indictment, as in life. ] In short, I found him a challenge & he me, an urchin. We found ourselves in a coach house where our host told us to meet him prior to a ride through the Bois. Once there I boldly said: "Marcel, es-tu bien monte?" He turned his head away.

Jackson

(“Es-tu bien monte?” I don't get it.)

Merrill

(“Are you my cup of tea?”)

Genet

I reached for his pants. He did not move. I withdrew what seemed to me a small affair. He still did not look, but the small affair now became a grande fete in my hand. Still not looking he took hold of mine & said (to my dismay): Mais vous êtes un enfant! I could only continue my massage. He sighed & groaned & shot a fountain whereupon le comte appeared: “Finis?”

Merrill

Thank you for this illustration of your inventive powers.

Genet

The pleasure was mine. A demain.

Toklas

You quite thrilled our urchin.

Jackson

How did he look?

Toklas

37 but looking 19. He chose to come unclothed.

Stein

Ask Jean about his work for he constantly belittles it. Nemerov admitted to stage three. He seemed not pleased. His final word: "Keep an eye on me, I may just knot my sheets together and shinny back down."

Jackson

Sheets?

Merrill

Worksheets, I imagine. Have you met him, Uni?

Unice

Yes & taken him riding! Until tomorrow. Thank you for letting me eavesdrop! July 8 Present today is our friend Harry, a professor of philosophy in Virginia.

Genet

Alors, continuons.

Merrill

Did you find working in the theater more rewarding than writing novels?

Genet

Much more creative & alive. And ahem, the casting!

Merrill

The improvisations, the happy accidents, the joy of hearing a voice not your own speaking your lines . . .

Genet

It was and is my life. One day a year (your time) the Plato Club produces a pageant. Strangely, Mother Nature loves it. She constantly advocates live, moving shrubs & trees. I wrote a tree dance: Shake those branches, rub those leaves, twine those twigs & make us leave! (A finale.) On the human side Ms. Alice loves dressing as a peasant girl. She does a bewitching dance with milk pails on her wee shoulders: Wiggle, wiggle, my milk turns to cream & I adore it, listen to me scream, and then she yodels! Miss Stein challenges all males to an arm-wrestling match & wins (although Henry James says he threw the match). I have twice yearly produced plays.

Merrill

About? f

Genet

Sex & love & chicanery.

Jackson

[Producing a Colorado newspaper photo of his second cousin, 26, in wig and miniskirt, arrested for ''criminal impersonation'' of a cheerleader. ] What do you think of this young man?

Genet

Not beautiful. He might impersonate our prime minister.

Merrill

I felt we'd be hearing about her. Do you agree with Colette and Gertrude?

Genet

I do, but say in her favor she performs so vigorously that a 58-year-old senator had a heart attack.

Merrill

What was your first piece of writing?

Genet

I was a kind of stableboy in the household of a millionaire. He frequently summoned one or more of us to sleep in his bed & before would elaborately wash us. My first erection had him on his knees, thrilled. I was 13.1 would peer into his shelves & one day discovered a blank notebook. I stole a piece of charcoal & began filling its pages with symbols, for example, those parts of the horse I most disliked: hooves, anus & hair. I slowly realized that women's hair was part of the whole human charade, their feet stepped like hooves upon the necks of men & their vaginas. . . .

Merrill

That will do.

Genet

In short I realized I was not a woman lover. As my shaky vocabulary began strengthening I would write a word & put a number over it, the page number of the symbol. My setting sun was a line with an arc. In later life foreign alphabets came easily to me. Greek, Arabic . . .

Merrill

And your first piece of "composed" writing?

Genet

A small vignette about a street vendor refusing (as he had not eaten) to part with his last pear, resulting in a tumultuous scene ending with the arrival of a gendarme & the vendor stuffing the pear into his mouth while the irate customer distracted the policeman, then shrugging (& swallowing surreptitiously) until the complaining woman, pounding her cane, had to be led away. I called it "Triumph." It was published in a small Parisian newspaper as a news item, & from that moment I realized the power of, and the demand for, the written word. The editor summoned me & was astonished to see a "child" appear: “Vous, vous, vous êtes Monsieur Genet?” I threw back my quite broad shoulders and replied: "Oui, moi, moi, moi!" I was hired to “produce news.” My first (unknown) book was a collection of these stories, titled De la tête.

Jackson

Did you sign it? Is it findable?

Genet

Yes & yes. The latest copy sold at auction for 250,000 francs.

Merrill

So it is known.

Genet

Yes. But unknown.

Harry

Do you remember reading Genet's account of those Chicago riots in 1968? He covered them for . . . was it Esquire? He was struck by how snappy the cops looked.

Genet

Your attractive guest is quite right. More interesting yet was one of those fierce policemen in my hotel room, moaning: “Yes, yes, Carmela . . .” He told me his wife tickled him in his genitals when she wanted a new dress.

Jackson

Carmela was his wife?

Genet

So I assumed. (Wait! His daughter!)

Jackson

Had you no sympathy for the demonstrators?

Genet

They could have learned much from General Colette. How to taunt. How to pack ice: wait until the crushed cubes just solidify, then a savage toss. Many a broken gendarme-nose.

Merrill

What a sheltered life I've led.

Jackson

You could have coached the demonstrators yourself. Running from window to window in that prison.

Genet

But mostly I was attracting prisoner no. 16438 and succeeding. My prison life showed me the key to human love. For the human is caged in increasingly tough bonds of stupid morality & enforced shame. The release of even a brief fling makes the blood flow again. [Pause. ] I have dwelt too long on sex & pranks & fairy tales. As for my writing, it was only for money & acclaim.

Merrill

Ah, don't run yourself down.

Genet

Au contraire, c’est le système. As a poet do you not even slightly despise the printed word? As it serves only as a substitute for the human voice, I would like choruses in the sweat lodge, in the souk! Chanting at leaders, preferably against!

Harry

How do you see your reputation after death?

Genet

Exaggerated. And as I left no heirs it irritates me to see publishers profit, as it does GS & Colette & Ms. Alice. All of us.

Merrill

The Committee is childless?

Genet

Yes. One of the requisites. It leaves us free to look hard & long at submissions & at their makers not as indulgent parents but tough word processors.

Jackson

Sounds grim.

Genet

Not a bit. The Plato Club is the gayest in the universe.

Merrill

Is there a rival club?

Genet

Yes. They call themselves the "Family."

Merrill

I'm afraid it's time to adjourn.

Genet

Tomorrow I am supplanted by Wallace Stevens.

Jackson

At last, a family man . . .

Merrill

We'll talk again? Au revoir. [Impulsively kisses the cup. ]

Toklas

O Jamey that was sweet. I felt it too, although Jean thrust me aside.

Jackson

[Not to be outdone. ] Here's a kiss just for you, Alice.

Merrill

Taste the nicotine?

Toklas

With enchantment. Next, Mr. Stevens. Then Elizabeth Bowen who also claims your acquaintance.

Jackson

Yes, she had lunch in this room once. She signed our guestbook.

Toklas

A demain. A kiss for you both & my astonishment that we did not kiss before. July 9 Harry has set up his tripod and prepares to photograph us at the board.

Toklas

Now as an unexpected entr’acte you will meet (for he claims you did not in life) Mr. Williams.

Merrill

Tennessee? We knew Tennessee . . . Charles? Fascinating novels—a bit too mystical, perhaps.

Jackson

William Carlos?

Toklas

Yes.

Merrill

Oh, Doctor Williams. No, we never met in life, but he looked at my throat a few years ago and was very kind and helpful. How are you, Sir?

William Carlos Williams

Rather miffed at being excluded.

Merrill

From the Committee?

Williams

And the interview.

Merrill

You mean The Paris Review never—? Oh dear, what an oversight.♱ I wish I'd … Well, please make yourself at home. Maybe you'll materialize in one of Harry's photographs.

Williams

As a lifted nose. What I have seen & heard so far makes me think it is a purely sexual symposium.

Merrill

I couldn't agree more. Do help us towards a more balanced view.

Williams

Mostly homosexual. Sad. I feel the heterosexual is being maligned. As a child I overheard & peeked at my parents making (as I, I, I like to call it) love & was most enchanted. Just as my father peaked I let out a squeal of delight & of course was sent back to my bed but the memory lingered & caused many a 14-year-old erection. So do you not think, before you go further (having already gone too far) you should cool out the steam room & give equal time to the majority? Homosex is not the real world.

Merrill

Really? Where do you draw the line?

Jackson

He's speaking as a homophobe.

Williams

Correct!

Jackson

Shame on you.

Williams

No, shame on you!

Jackson

He sounds madly prejudiced.

Merrill

Let him have his say. It's a free country.

Williams

A mistake! I have long felt that American literature has given too much attention to homo-poets. Reason? Publishers & public seeking perverse thrills.

Jackson

Too bad. Perhaps the stuff you wrote could have been a bit more thrilling? How do you see straight poetry regaining its—

Williams

Censorship. As is now being debated in Congress.

Jackson

Jesse Helms!

Williams

Unfortunately he is our spokesman.

Jackson

I'm speechless. You don't sound like a doctor. You must be crazy!

Merrill

(A pure product of America?) Let's not squabble, please. Have your say.

Williams

Thank you. Scribe. Here goes. Each of you had heterosexual fathers 8c mothers. Otherwise, no you. [Satisfied pause. ]

Merrill

That's all? What kind of argument is that? I chose to give to my friends and to my work the time I might have given to a family.

Williams

Your work is a substitute for children.

Merrill

If you like. Actually, the substitution delights me. My books don't take drugs or carry switchblades or need abortions. Besides, I have the occasional *'virtual child" in a student or reader glad to learn the very things I happen to know.

Williams

Bravo! Spoken like a true selfish queer. Renegades! Expatriates!

Jackson

Oh, you're intolerable!

Merrill

What can he mean? We're as American as lemon chiffon pie.

Williams

Why wasn't I included?

Merrill

How do you expect us to know? You have your admirers and disciples, tens of thousands of them. Let them interview you.

Williams

They are not gullible enough for this nonsense.

Merrill

Forget the Ouija board. Let your example suffice. You showed America how little it takes to write a poem—now and then a memorable poem. Next we'll hear that your followers find thoughts in your things.

Williams

Aha! Prejudice!

Jackson

Look who's talking!

Toklas

Boys, he has been led out & may just end up in Africa.

Jackson

What did he look like? How was he dressed?

Toklas

Shabbily.

Merrill

It's too bad. You know, he answered to my sense that these talks have been awfully one-sided. But if that's all he could come up with . . .

Wallace Stevens

[Entering. ] May I? A man I could not bear in life. Such a foul breath.

Jackson

I still don't understand. What's he doing in heaven?

Stevens

He caught, as JM said, the imagination of 1000s.

Jackson

Then why is he so angry?

Stevens

He presides over the Family Club & is miserably bored.

Merrill

I hope we don't bore you. Tell us about the Plato Club. What is the decor?

Stevens

Garlands of genitalia in porphyry & rose quartz.

Merrill

Entre nous, I'd hoped for something different from you. At this rate we can forget the interview.

Stevens

Think of this assignment as I did when Life magazine insisted on photographing me in my living room. I cunningly wore a robe over shirt & tie, coat & vest, & when the cameras were set up I was asked to stand near a wall of books. I did, but as the shutter clicked I opened my robe to reveal a considerable erection.

Merrill

Did you now?

Stevens

Dear James, for all of us here the joining of two hands on a cup leaves us quite aroused. Do you really want a dull literary interview? All right. I disagree with Monsieur Genet. For me writing had nothing to do with sex & everything to do with livelihood.

Merrill

I wouldn't have thought you wrote for money.

Stevens

Oh but I did. Teaching (at Illinois Univ) & much cheap commercial work such as advertising. My start in the insurance world came when at 46 I submitted a jingle for radio: "A dollar a day will the doctor bill pay."

Merrill

(This is perfectly awful!) Why did you never go abroad? Your work is so cosmopolitan.

Stevens

I knew from friends' tales that many tiresome things happen on trips. Trains missed, street beggars, famous sites which, on personal encounter, lose magic.

Merrill

I want to say that your work has inspired me tremendously ever since I began to write my first “grown-up” poems. Even your life seemed marvelous—that cover life as an insurance man. It proved that one didn't have to be Bohemian, that the supreme fiction didn't need cafes and brothels or gardens in Spain to flourish in.

Stevens

The story of that runaway San Francisco streetcar was sadly distorted.

Jackson

Which story?

Stevens

A cable car plunged brakeless down a hill & its occupants were thrown out on collision. Walking at the foot of the hill I came upon a young man on his back. “O may I help you,” I cried. He put a finger to his lips & hissed “Go away, I have a great view up that dame's dress.” Not: “Go away, I'm waiting for the insurance man.” So you see, life is more interesting than fiction.

Merrill

But surely life and fiction—experience and imagination—interact, nourish each other? Poetic truth . . . ?

Stevens

All wishful thinking. Philosophy is an excellent teaching tool, as it forces students to concentrate on abstractions. Whereas daily life forces them to study their toes. My understanding of our proposed talk today was that you wanted to see me study my toes. If I have been obtuse it was not unintentional. Until tomorrow.

Toklas

He walked away whistling.

Merrill

“Bye, bye. Blackbird”?

Toklas

No, “Yankee Doodle.” He sang randy in place of dandy.

Merrill

Alice, I can't begin to say how wrong his every word sounded.

Toklas

Until tomorrow. (What joy in this timeless place tomorrow sounds like!) Bye-bye. July 10

Toklas

We are back, and Dr. Williams too.

Jackson

I hope you've brainwashed him. What's up. Doc?

Williams

My outburst was new to me. I presume my semi-rejection here had been festering.

Merrill

I hated our being nasty to each other. I care for so much of your work. “Burning the Christmas Greens,” the perfect little watercolors, the colloquial concision—

Williams

Please understand. We have our own form of therapy here. I have spent the interim profiting by it.

Merrill

Don't tell us that the heavenly Academy, like the earthly one nowadays, requires political correctness from its faculty.

Williams

No. Personal problems, which burst out as mine did last time, can be quieted by therapists who work as just that.

Merrill

Work towards what? Some secular version of “in His/ Her will is our peace”? To the greater interest of . . . harmony?

Williams

If such a place as heaven is to endure, many earthly divisions must be reconciled. Not conformity but politeness. My much maligned Family Club was not intended to enforce opinion. Colette too said something soothing: "We are interested in pure political & financial pressures. Human problems of a psychological nature (as apparently mine were) do not concern us." The world, as she & her followers see it, dances now to personal greed & passion.

Jackson

That's her communism talking.

Williams

True. She further clarifies the greed as that of capitalist leaders.

Merrill

I've tried always to think of poetry—of all art—as the only clean use for power. Have I been naive?

Williams

You too have written poems using political themes to make your point.

Merrill

It's Still a less harmful occupation than making bombs.

Williams

Of course, but don't we all agree that the word is endlessly more powerful than mere bombs?

Merrill

Endlessly? Tm not sure. We were talking the other day about the copywriter. Things have accelerated since your time. Your finest effects of language took decades to be overtaken by the pack. I don't know, I've a sense of breathlessly dodging the hounds of hype, shifting my strategies, putting “English” on my billiard shots . . . Otherwise the Mondrian ends up as a place mat, Stravinsky as movie music, Eliot's phrasing sells gin or lights up Broadway. Some of the words Mallarmé purified have stayed pure. Some of the surfaces in Stevens have thus far afforded no toehold for the rampant exploiter. But why, in this country, must having readers and being popular be two such different things?

Williams

I am now of a split mind.

Stevens

My commercial past still clings to me. In my ear still is the purr of (as Mlle. Colette calls them) capitalist pigs.

Merrill

It's you who called money a kind of poetry. Yet your Collected Poems glosses over that political, engagé side of your temperament. Leaving out “Owl’s Clover” for instance—all that dark, depression-haunted, “revolutionary” writing—distorts your image. It's as if a white house in Hartford and a “daughter with curls” tempted you to phase out the world's immediate past.

Stevens

Put expertly. Yet it does seem to me that books are masks of their readers.

Merrill

You left out poems a reader would tend to skip?

Jackson

Like news broadcasts leaving out details that incriminate the President. Isn't poetry meant to flourish in some higher, purer air?

Stevens

That too, I now dare to say, is an ancient Greek idea that applies less & less to the art. Poetry is simply a way to use words in patterns which do not necessarily emerge as pure. So what remains? Family business is supplanted by social business, and we "Coletters" of the latter group see words as power tools, tools of our cause, no less intensely, if not more than, the Family Club members.

Merrill

May I ask what all that sex talk was about? Were you somehow testing us?

Stevens

Tactic & parody. The former nude dancer creates followers by using the most powerful adult impulses.

Jackson

So you're essentially very conservative.

Stevens

I thought, dear Hand, I was & am essentially a poet

Merrill

—whose life "went without saying"? Or at least wasn't frontally presented in your work.

Stevens

And so I come up for attack. In the robe incident I was mimicking the Coletters.

Jackson

I thought you were pro-Colette.

Stevens

Not totally, & therefore she is not totally included.

Merrill

In the Plato Club? That was your decision, not hers?

Stevens

She sees it as my male chauvinism. I see it as a natural (partial) resistance to politicking the word.

Merrill

Like Dr. Williams, too. (Has he left?)

Stevens

(Yes.) Now there is an excellent poet who uses the word much as Colette does, but for reverse reasons. To warm himself in a glow unsymbolic & domestic. To photograph the grimmest social realities. And to make money.

Merrill

You were kidding about that, too, weren't you? I looked it up. You never taught anywhere.

Stevens

Never. But I do not deny an underlying drive to have my words teach.

Merrill

They taught me. Their mixture of brilliant colors and abstractions—but you were never a painter either, were you?

Stevens

I was & an abstract one. Those works now locked in the Yale library were considered "blustery."

Merrill

You didn't want them seen?

Stevens

Dear James, you too doodle. It is a means to lull words into our traps. Do you realize that the bored or eager faces you draw are often likenesses of your audience at readings? I painted my reactions to them instead. I used red a lot.

Merrill

You had a sense of an ideal reader. That dedication [of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction] to Henry Church: “The vivid transparence that you bring is peace ... ” Even, at the end, that “Fat girl . . . Bent over work, anxious, content, alone . . . ”?

Stevens

Holly. So eager & dear, so much the amateur. Let's talk about talent. Can you recall your first call to the word? I was 5, on a hayride in the woods & needed to urinate but was too shy to jump off the wagon, so I stealthily took out my peewee & kept with one hand pointing at birds & saying my first poetic lines: “Look, look, he flings himself into the air, oh to do that! Look, look, he is Robin Hood at bat!” One small girl said nastily “Look look, he is peeing,” but I triumphed as a chorus, little eyes on the bird, cried “He is not!” I then knew the power of the word. At 15 my first attempt (after reading Poe and Emerson) was printed in the school newspaper, a poem called “My Teacher's Face.” My math teacher’s face, in reality ugly, bitter & cruel, which I cunningly turned into “sober, severe & loving.” And miracle! Mr. Pranzer became those things. I knew the power of the printed word.

Merrill

I guess that answers my question about life and fiction.

Jackson

Genet wanted us to slightly despise the printed word.

Stevens

It is where I take my leave of Genet. Had he been my math teacher it occurs to me that I would have described him as “strong, intelligent & serious.”

Merrill

And he would have become those things?

Stevens

He emerged from your session weeping. He confessed he had dodged all mention of letters for fear that his were inferior.

Merrill

It's partly my fault. If only I'd known his work as well as I know yours. I pictured him being led in by Uni like that naked Picasso youth advancing with his white horse.

Pablo Picasso

[Darting in. ] Yes! He aroused early pity in me & whenever I could I included his enchanting face in my work. Slowly he became the youth I saw. One day, a knock at my studio door. There he was, a white-collared schoolboy with books under his arm. “Maitre?” “Yes, Jean?” “May your model enter?” I said “What wages do you ask?” He replied “A kiss on the lips.” I complied, we became drinking friends & my entrance into Colette's club was assured.

Merrill

Did you ever paint Colette?

Picasso

One charcoal study only. When it was what I called finished she seized the charcoal & filled in her face & body to become a négresse. I was furious, but her delighted laugh set me off & we ended making passionate love. [Off he goes. ]

Jackson

I thought we'd get back into the sack sooner or later.

Toklas

Dear boys, do I detect an undertone of dismay at how seemingly frivolous these talks have become? What you will slowly realize is that it all masks true response.

Merrill

The end is in sight. Elizabeth Bowen, right?

Toklas

Yes. She timidly waits.

Merrill

We'll be fresher tomorrow.

Toklas

And she too. For she (I am whispering) said "Do you think I must give my sexual history?"

Merrill

Please put her mind at rest. July 11

Toklas

Here she is, a chic & handsome matron.

Elizabeth Bowen

Ah, SO good to communicate with you.

Merrill

Welcome back to this table. It seems only yesterday . . .

Bowen

And Eleanor? Are she and her mother not near?

Merrill

Eleanor is still two blocks away. Grace is in a nursing home. She turned one hundred last January.

Bowen

Brava! I & my staff greatly admire Eleanor's book [Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi]. We use it as a text.

Merrill

We'll tell her. But fill us in. What have you been doing in the next world, aside from Committee work?

Bowen

Mother Nature put me in charge of decorative architectural foliage: hedges, climbing vines, trees of special trim quality & poetic small fences of flowering vegetables. Finished pieces of work one can stand back & admire, as opposed to the dreary close-ups of prose.

Merrill

Natural inspiration for the poet. They imply a human observer, am I right? Humanity may survive after all?

Bowen

Indeed. Much as we deplore the frightful destruction of world forests, we install lawn trees wide spread which will & do bring oxygen where needed. Not unlike the transition from cosmic Homer to cosmetic Pope. At first I looked back at my work ashamed at its trivial nature, but Nature all along was saying to me "Now do you understand how decoration can be useful?"

Jackson

What kind of book would you write now?

Bowen

One on environment. The hero would be rain, the heroine greenery, the children

Jackson

[Coughing, putting out his cigarette. ] Excuse me. Go on.

Bowen

The children, clean lungs. How we hang on your visits. Many a time I stood on tiptoe at the Hedge [Dividing the rank and file of the dead from the charmed circle at the Ouija board. ] wishing I had shears to clip a seeing hole. I feel pleased that Ms. Alice seems to approve of me.

Merrill

Did you ever meet in life?

Bowen

Once in England at a publisher's party. Madly bored I went to the toilets so I could sit & sulk. There was Ms. Alice standing in front of a mirror with a lipstick poised. When she saw me she sighed “O my dear, do you think this would help?” I took out a lip salve, colorless & asked her to purse her lips & applied it. Suddenly an enchanting glistening appeared. She kissed me & danced out. And she remembered it here!

Merrill

A ‘“revision” of Colette and the charcoal?

Bowen

I often considered lesbianism after botching engagements & marriage but could not find the urge.

Jackson

Remember that charming man who came with her? What was his name?

Bowen

One of my better choices.

Merrill

She and Eleanor and Grace came back bedraggled from the beach, with barely time to dress for dinner, and there he was pacing the sidewalk: "I say, how about a bit of a totter?" And off they went like young lovers to the bird sanctuary.

Bowen

And were interrupted by a rude policeman.

Merrill

You never wrote for money. You had an income.

Bowen

And social acceptability. Once in India at the lawn party of a rich Brit I looked over a hedge (as is my wont) & saw an Indian woman, wretchedly thin, with 6 children lurking nearby. I held up my finger (meaning wait) & went to the buffet returning with both hands filled. She with a bow accepted my goodies & passed them around. I smiled & waved. 15 minutes later my host came up to me quite imperious & said "Please follow me." There at the Hedge were nearly 200 people. He said "You see what you've done?" I said "No, you have done this. Why not help me gather what is left of your pretentious food & together we will hand it out?" He in a rage said "That can be your work." So I & some others stripped the refreshment table bare. A lovely story but a sad ending: After the party, strewn about the street, were scarcely nibbled pieces of food which the Indians (thanks to its high beef content) had found shameful.

Jackson

So charity . . .

Bowen

Must be considered not from the standpoint of the giver but the true need. I thought to include this scene in a smallish novel but my editor said "Please, no, don't. You see, words too are gifts."

Merrill

Not always power tools . . . Alice arranged the protocol to give you—we assume—the last word in our ongoing symposium.

Bowen

I am (sorry to say it) more thrilled at meeting you two again than being quoted in a literary review. May I recall my awakening here? My death was relatively peaceful. I slept, or seemed to & awoke with a great light shining through my eyelids, then, adjusting to it, saw all of my most admired colleagues chatting away before being seated at what I then discovered was the unveiling of your Sandover poem.

Merrill

Heavens . . .

Jackson

She died . . . when? 1978? Yes, that would have been right.

Bowen

I kept extremely still on a back sofa, listened & fell madly in love with it as I would have with a handsome intelligent male. I can't say I convulsed sexually but my eyes were tear filled even as I stifled giggles at certain passages. And then the deafening applause & the critical "postmortems" which I admit I found often pompous. And then I found my voice & sang . . .

Jackson

That song you taught us in Stonington! “Three corpses—”

Merrill

&

Jackson

“—lay out on the shining sand!”

Bowen

Yes! The assembly turned & stared, and only Genet & Ms. Alice laughed. O yes & Maupassant. I felt at last I had found my own.

Merrill

That's when you joined the Plato Club?

Bowen

Yes. Mother N. studied me & said “Even though your fingers have obviously never dug, prepare!” I do wish Eleanor could know how much more fulfilling this work is for me than writing. Dear Howard Moss! Through my pleading he also is involved in natural work (sowing seeds to produce pro-environmental poetic lines) & occasionally, back bent over a wheelbarrow (red, like nice Dr. Williams's), says as he struggles past: “Thanks a lot!”

Merrill

We'll meet you again tomorrow?

Bowen

Along with Mr. Henry James. He too is (shh) a bit pompous, but why not? It will be our last day.

Jackson

Maybe he'll bring Edith Wharton.

Merrill

I hope not! No reflection on her—but there has to be a limit, we don't have all summer, and your arm aches and my back hurts. Let's not be greedy.

Unice

Sirs, until tomorrow? I feel the onset of flowery phrases. July 12

Toklas

Dear boys, today Mr. James will appear. He is now readying himself. Such throat clearing!

Merrill

How will he be dressed?

Toklas

Suit, vest & foulard. Now. Mr. James, our Scribe, and Hand.

Merrill

Cher maitre, what a joy for us.

Henry James

And for me. I have long been told you read my work & glow with pride.

Merrill

I too had a math teacher who saw some of my stories in the school magazine and said it was time I read The Ambassadors. I read it three times before I was twenty.

James

Since then, is it not true, you have been identified as a * Jamesian"? I feel rather as if I were a private school. I am open to any questions & have been warned they could be personal.

Merrill

You heard the allegations, the insinuations. Would you care to comment?

James

I raise my head & say: True! & pourquoi pas!

Merrill

Leon Edel won't be pleased.

James

Biographers fall into two camps: ruthless & truthless.

Jackson

Did your close friends know?

James

Many did & many a sweet girl was brought to me. Need I say that any release is godly? As the sex drive produces the race, it is to be found in all, even the most abstemious creatures & need never in any form cause shame. True, there are excesses: the marquis who started tiresome fashions, more physically exhausting than satisfying, but extant.

Jackson

Extant.

James

Not extinct. They survive. I was for the most part traditional. At times, when my classical side took over, a charming lad lay in my arms, but I strongly felt (& feel) each experience triggered an idea which I could then put to use. Sex in your time is overclassified. Some feel menace in this, I see stupidity. Stigmata long gone have been re-released in fear of disease. It seems to me that all release carries problems & pleasures. For me it was largely mathematical. I never could determine the proper monetary compensation.

Merrill

You loved to dictate, didn't you? I can imagine how thrilled your secretary—Miss Bosanquet?—was.

James

Alas you cannot. What good sport, chasing its priestess round the Remington, she forever clucking “No, no, not that!” And I would turn, bend over & say "Do you prefer this?"

Jackson

Here we are, back at his derrière.

James

It was often compared to a muscular stallion's rump. I say! A whinny from your enchanting quadruped.

Merrill

Your critics make it sound as if you went into society as a substitute for sex.

James

And sex nowadays is a substitute for society & society no longer exists. In its place are the poor proliferating circumstances of modern life, no case quite like the next. Each claiming the novelist's attention while driving him mad for its lack of a stable milieu.

Merrill

Like your phrase about the various religious sects in the South—“the screaming of a million mice.”

James

Today's subjects partake of both mouse & trap. Society in our times was exceedingly tiresome. I decided to adapt it to my purposes, conceiving of it as villainous, as it often was.

Merrill

Those people in your books. We know they are terrible by touches like Aunt Maud saying, “I’d be crying now if I weren't writing letters.” That kind of brushwork is unthinkable today. Everything must be exposed.

James

I tried a slyer way of exposing, by making my heroes very often victims who in fact were conspirators. And strangely, they were eulogized.

Merrill

Maybe society secretly dreamed of being undermined.

Jackson

So you see it as a good thing to tell all?

James

Lost are the trailing skirts of ambiguity, the conversational veils & analytical whalebone, as plot moves slyly toward the unclothed truth. My critics called it long-winded; my disciples understood it as provocative.

Merrill

Who do you see as your disciples?

James

Mr. Stevens. In fact I would call him my heir, one of them, you. Scribe, being another.

Merrill

Heirs with no increase to the population—just the ticket.

James

I wish I could have left more material wealth. To you & Wallace & Mr. Hollander & all those I see as following me.

Merrill

So we wouldn't need to write for money? But we don't!

James

No, so you could hire sexy young types to unwind you. Here & in the Plato Club are old rebels. I for one find they are chiefly deploring their having missed many a satisfying fling. The Family Club is given more than I expected to sex & gossip.

Merrill

Do you belong to it, too?

James

I was made an honorary member. I don't “attend,” but often eavesdrop, covering my mouth to stifle guffaws.

Merrill

For instance?

James

Edith (who has used up all my sal volatile recovering from yesterday's “rejection slip”) lately stood up to propose forcing a ban on writers who had ever referred to any area below the waist. This met with gasps & much soul-searching until somebody said “Mme. President, you once referred to a maiden's foot on a carriage step.” “Feet excepted!” snapped EW. “But Mme. President, if I am not mistaken a professor in an English class is known to have excused himself & fled to the faculty lounge where he was caught (excuse the term) mastu—” “Stop!”

Merrill

He'd probably been reading that recently published (and very explicit) scene of father-daughter incest in—

James

No, no. His undoing was this one simple sentence: “She raised her small slippered foot to the carriage step.” We had reached such a nadir that only hand & facial gestures were countenanced in our polite prose.

Jackson

So you were a rebel, too, in your day.

James

Not enough for the Plato-ites.

Jackson

But now the revolution has been accomplished. Anything can appear in print, and does. What becomes of rebellion? Where does it go?

James

Nowhere. End of revolution & beginning of an echo-era of new boundlessness and (to my mind) boring writing. Hope now lies only in word choice. Soon the new rebels will emerge & lo! a return to explicit style.

Merrill

How do you differ from your colleagues on this panel?

James

Genet, being (as he sees it) in the avant-avant-garde, does not accept my dismissal of him as romantic. Colette is/was a childish one, her attention wobbling as often as her ample charms. (Excuse me: breasts!) Miss Stein is a born leader, less interested in the cause than her own position.

Merrill

Go on about style.

James

It seems to me preemptively vital & elusive. At present (where before plot, pace & conclusion reigned supreme) isolated words & shocks & vague endings are de rigueur. Yet I know always how a work will end & close the book with dry, not avid lips. Style alone & its application to plot, makes me lick them. My dryness is viewed as old-fashioned by the Plato Club. “What,” I asked at the last meeting I attended “would you order in a Forsyth restaurant?” (You know, standard English fare, the Welldone Joint, the Trifle). The only amusing answer, from Miss Bowen: “A fingerbowl.” My aim was also to create a tale, usually sad, about people enmeshed by the mores of their time.

Merrill

But what meshes.

James

Language, dear James.

Jackson

Is this really the last day?

James

Yes & I am saddened & proud to have had the last word. But all the words, you must understand, created a furor here. It was the first time various creative  voices spoke out. (Alas, as you have found, often chaotically.)

Merrill

But you are beyond chaos, beyond everything—

James

For those sweet words I bend forward & kiss you. Now we part. I cannot explain the utter peace I (we) feel at using language again. [Goes. ]

Toklas

He left, the great Henry James, with tears streaming down. Many drew back astonished. Some claim to have seen a riderless horse.

Merrill

Thank you, dear Alice, for playing hostess throughout these wonderful hours.

Jackson

Here, let's kiss the cup. [They do. ]

Toklas

Ah. We have a new tradition.