Reading on Writers

And then there’s always that nasty stuff about death making everything so serious.

As I get older, I seem to want to read more biographies, especially of writers since I am fascinated with what makes or made so many of them tick. I crave insider information about their routine, how they got their ideas, how they linked totally different events to come up with their fresh and clever responses to all the crap that bugged them or made them laugh.

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons
Credit: Random House, Alissa Anderson

Right now, I’m reading I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. Described as a “mesmerizing labor of love” by Janet Maslin in the New York Times, Leonard is portrayed “as a man of letters, both poet and novelist, long before he set words to music.”

Some people don’t care for his voice or even his lyrics, but I’m with Maslin in thinking they’re both “a sublime experience.” Always a natty dresser – “Darling, I was born in a suit.” – he’s still recording and performing to big audiences all over god’s little green acre.

From his youth in Montreal on, he’s always been a night owl, too, prowling the tucked away clubs and enjoying the sounds that continue to haunt his ever unfolding enlightenment about the fleeting nature of love, the beauty of music and poetry, and the great mystery of death.

Leonard turned 78 last fall. The troubadour is getting old.

As I read on, I wonder if his sleep is calm and uninterrupted or whether he tosses and turns and only catches cat naps the way Tucker, my old tomcat who has been diagnosed with early stage renal failure, can curl up in a basket or disappear deep within a box to compose his next move without disturbance.

And then there’s Cervantes:

“All I know is that while I’m asleep, I’m never afraid, and I have no hopes, no struggles, no glories — and bless the man who invented sleep, a cloak over all human thought, food that drives away hunger, water that banishes thirst, fire that heats up cold, chill that moderates passion, and, finally, universal currency with which all things can be bought, weight and balance that brings the shepherd and the king, the fool and the wise, to the same level.” – Don Quixote

Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven
Credit: Harper Collins, Louis Kapeleris

Setting Mr. Cohen aside for a few minutes, I also chanced upon a review recently of Thornton Wilder: A Lifeby Penelope Niven. Wilder is not a name you hear so much any longer, although I can still remember reading Our Town, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and The Skin of Our Teeth. Wilder was another dapper man who just seemed to get better as he aged.

Like so many of us males, he had to break out first from under the influence of his controlling father. I loved the lines in the New Yorker review by Robert Gottlieb:

My father was a man of religious conviction. My religion was gone before I missed it, like a coat left in some railway station. Even in my Oberlin days I had formulated for myself the phrase: religion is the emanation from an extinct star.

He was a masterful writer and was rewarded with a number of Pulitzers for his efforts. It’s fun now to go back and see how he composed opening sentences to hook the reader. The Bridge opens with:

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

Who could stop reading there?

Like Leonard, he kept reinventing himself and even joined the Army Air Force at 45 during WWII. His military career, like his writing, was another success. He spent it mostly overseas, rising to lieutenant colonel and winning the Bronze Star for his duty in North Africa and Italy. After the war, he wrote another novel, The Ides of March, a meditation on Julius Caesar and the Rome of his day. In it, he shows Caesar as a realist, caught up in “frightening responsibilities, seeing life more clearly than those around him do, supremely isolated,” according to Gottlieb.

I like the idea of being in the midst of the fray, as Leonard and Thornton both were, but also “supremely isolated” and carrying on with their craft.

I get the message from the review that Wilder had his share of insecurities, “a personality peculiarly isolated,” “never free of a sense of inadequacy,” “forever dry when warmth is called for, and warm when judicious impersonality is called for.” And he certainly was no ladies’ man as is Leonard.

But they both shared a certain understanding of their fellow travelers in this life. Both are marked by a gregarious, friendly, and generous spirit to others.

And again like Leonard, he was known to work deep into the night, where he found the peace to write. What I like most about him is his loathing for the false, the pretentious and the petty. He was a humanist, one like Leonard who was open to the complexities of his fellow man’s goodness as well as to the darker side of his nature. He died at 78, the same age Leonard is now.

I am glad, too, that they were comfortable with the night and knew how to make their own adjustments to their aging selves.

And finally in trying to understand these two disparate but similar men in many ways, I take myself back to Cervantes who used Don Quixote to remind us of the night and not to fear it. If only we could learn to curl up and sleep, as does Tucker, to find the solace that banishes fear and also brings peace. One could do worse than to dine well the evening before in the company of your lovely lady and then to sleep, to die in winter in the raw, wet, and cold dark hours before dawn.

Never in the full warmth of an April morning.

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David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one remaining dog.  We've decided no more dogs and cats.  Losing them is just too painful. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I now have the chance to revisit the many people and places that have enriched my life. The good folks at Wesleyan College in central West Virginia guided me to a graduate degree in fine arts in early 2018.  My plan is to use some of the skills I learned from two years in this creative writing program to tell my story.