Answers to thirty-three personal questions

I ran across this ancient meme on Facebook today and decided that it wasn’t too late to play. Here goes:

1. What was the last thing you put in your mouth? A complimentary sesame pretzel. It was doubleplusungood.

AT LONG WHARF2. Where was your Facebook profile picture taken? Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. (I change it according to mood, but that’s the one I posted this morning.)

3. Can you play Guitar Hero?
 I don’t even know what it is!

4. Name someone who made you laugh today. So far, nobody.

5. How late did you stay up last night, and why?
 Two-thirty. I was reading a novel, William Haggard’s The Need to Know.

6. If you could move somewhere else, would you?
 That’s a huge “if.” All things being equal, though, I’d like to live on Florida’s Sanibel Island in the wintertime and the Berkshires in the summertime.

7. Ever been kissed under fireworks? No, but it sounds like fun.

8. Which of your friends lives closest to you? My next-door neighbor.

9. Do you believe exes can be friends? Absolutely.

DR PEPPER MUSEUM10. How do you feel about Dr Pepper? I’ve loved it ever since I was a boy. I actually visited the Dr Pepper Museum a couple of years ago.

11. When was the last time you cried really hard? The day after my mother died.

12. Who took your profile picture?
 A photographer for the New York Times.

13. Who was the last person you took a picture of?
 Mrs. T. (I scarcely ever take pictures of anyone else.)

14. Was yesterday better than today?
 Yes. (Today has been pretty crappy, actually.)

15. Can you live a day without TV? Of course—I do it all the time. I turned on my hotel-room TV just once last week, and I turned it off again seconds later.

16. Are you upset about anything? No. Worried, yes; upset, no.

HAPPY COUPLE17. Do you think relationships are ever really worth it? My God, yes.

18. Are you a bad influence? I certainly hope not.

19. Night out or night in?
 Tonight, in.

20. What items could you not go without during the day? I’d hate to be without a book or two.

21. Who was the last person you visited in the hospital?
 Mrs. T.

22. What does the last text message in your inbox say?
 “Yes, we did.”

23. How do you feel about your life right now?
 Pretty good.

24. Do you hate someone?
 Nobody whom I know personally.

25. If we were to look in your Facebook inbox, what would we find? Nothing.

26. Could you pass a drug test right now? Yes.

27. Has anyone ever called you perfect before?
 Not seriously.

28. What song is stuck in your head?
 For the moment, Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce.” It’ll almost certainly change within the hour, though. My earworms come and go with clock-like frequency.

money_millionaire229. Someone knocks on your door at two a.m. Who do you want it to be?
 Michael Anthony.

30. Want to have grandchildren by the time you’re fifty? Too late!

31. Name something you have to do tomorrow. Drive from Connecticut to Manhattan and back again, arrgh.

32. Do you think too much or too little?
 Much too much.

33. Do you smile a lot?

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Truth without bullets

This essay about James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor originally appeared in National Review in 2009. It’s never been reprinted, nor has it been available on line until now. I post it in order to draw your attention to a near-forgotten book that I consider to be one of the best American novels of the twentieth century.

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200px-GuardofHonorCozzensNovelists don’t always write about what they know, but when something interesting happens to them, it usually winds up in a book. World War II was the most interesting thing that happened to most of the American novelists who served in it, and most of them duly produced novels based on their experiences, nearly all of which are forgotten. (Who now reads Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions or Gore Vidal’s Williwaw?) The more I read in the literature of the Good War, the more certain I am that it is in memoirs like Donald R. Burgett’s Currahee! and E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and the dispatches of such journalists as A.J. Liebling and Ernie Pyle that the very best American wartime writing is to be found—with a single exception. Of the countless novels of World War II written by American vets, the only one to which I return regularly is James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor.

If you’ve never heard of Guard of Honor, you’re not alone. Though it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949, it is as poorly remembered as the rest of Cozzens’ novels, and I doubt that it is ripe for revival. Set in a stateside Army Air Force base nine months before D-Day, most of its main characters are desk jockeys who almost certainly never made it to Europe or the South Pacific. Not surprisingly, nobody ever thought to turn the exploits of these indispensable yet invisible warriors into a movie; probably, nobody ever will. Yet Guard of Honor is a great novel all the same, the only English-language novel of World War II that can withstand comparison with Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour.

Cozzens, who died in 1978, is one of the least likely people to have made the cover of Time—though it wasn’t Guard of Honor that put him there. By Love Possessed, the 1957 best seller that won Cozzens a bit more than fifteen minutes’ worth of fame, was the occasion for an otherwise sympathetic cover story that portrayed him as a misanthropic grouch. Dwight Macdonald cherry-picked the story for quotes that he used to devastating effect in “By Cozzens Possessed,” a no-holds-barred assault on By Love Possessed that dismissed it as a windy exercise in middlebrow mediocrity. Alas, the essay was both clever and not entirely wrongheaded—By Love Possessed is the weakest of Cozzens’ major novels—and it did so much damage to his reputation that his masterpiece vanished in the rubble.

To read Guard of Honor after reading “By Cozzens Possessed” is to wonder whether Macdonald might possibly have had some other James Gould Cozzens in mind. Guard of Honor is almost as long as By Love Possessed, but it’s written with a disciplined tautness that makes it feel much shorter. At the same time, anyone familiar with both books will see at once that they are, like all of Cozzens’ novels, cut from the same cloth. He had many settings but only one subject—the near-insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way of shedding youthful illusions and seeing the world as it really is—and in Guard of Honor he explored it so fully as to leave himself with nothing new to say for the remainder of his writing life.

Guard of Honor takes place during forty-eight hours at Ocanara Army Air Base, located somewhere in central Florida. Most of the novel’s characters are seen through the eyes of Colonel Norman Ross and Captain Nathaniel Hicks, neither of whom is a career officer. Ross is a sixty-year-old judge, Hicks a thirty-eight-year-old magazine editor. Both men suppose themselves to be clear-eyed realists, and both find in due course that they still have more than a few things to learn about human nature, theirs included: “There never could be a man so brave that he would not sometime, or in the end, turn part or all coward; or so wise that he was not, from beginning to end, part ass if you knew where to look; or so good that nothing at all about him was despicable.”

The occurrence that opens their eyes is a short-lived protest by a group of black pilots who are enraged when they are told that they cannot be admitted to the whites-only Ocanara officers club but must stick to their own segregated facility. This protest, which is based on a real-life incident, is like a stone tossed in the water of Cozzens’ complicated plot. Its ripples touch all of the novel’s characters, most of whom did not see what happened and only know about it through more or (mostly) less accurate scuttlebutt. Colonel Ross’ job is to paper over the protest and protect the reputation of Ira Beal, the base commander, a talented but immature pilot who is being groomed by his Pentagon superiors for bigger things.

None of this is the stuff of which John Wayne movies are made, but it is enthralling all the same, for in telling the story of the protest and its aftermath, Cozzens takes the reader on an infinitely knowing guided tour of Ocanara, in the process showing how things get done in wartime, how they go wrong, and how they get fixed—or not. Along the way we meet people from every walk of life, each of whom is sketched with arresting exactitude. If that makes Guard of Honor sound like Grand Hotel, rest assured that Cozzens never stoops to once-over-lightly typecasting. His characters, the women included, are individual and recognizable, and before long you find yourself caring very deeply about what is to become of them.

Though we see much of Captain Hicks, who finds himself pulled almost unwittingly into an extramarital involvement with a lonely WAC lieutenant who is the novel’s most sensitively drawn character, it is Colonel Ross whose voyage of self-discovery lies at the heart of Guard of Honor. He is, like Melville’s Captain Vere, an old man who has experienced much—one of the Wright brothers taught him to fly—and a lifetime of labor in the vineyards of politics has taught him equally hard lessons about the differences between what men say in public and what they do in private. Yet he is taken aback to find that there are younger men of higher rank who cast an even colder eye on the inevitable limitations of their fellow men, and is chastened by the knowledge that he is, like most of us, a man whose experience “fitted him to advise others, rather than himself.”

Colonel Ross, we learn, is both a stoic and a pragmatist. Though he has come to the reluctant conclusion that life has no meaning, he also knows that the war against the Axis must be won if unimaginable horrors are not to be loosed on the world, and that in the long run it will likely be won less by heroism than by sheer determination: “A man must stand up and do the best he can with what there is….If mind failed you, seeing no pattern; and heart failed you, seeing no point, the stout, stubborn will must be up and doing. A pattern should be found; a point should be imposed.”

cozzenstimePart of what makes Guard of Honor so memorable is that its disillusion is untainted by cynicism. Cozzens spent most of the war pushing paper in the Pentagon, an experience that would have inspired the average novelist to write a very different kind of book. Instead he came away believing that most of the people whom he met while in uniform had done their best to do the right thing and, more often than not, did it pretty well.

The result of his experience is a book that might well be described as the inverse of Catch-22, just as Cozzens himself was as different from Joseph Heller as a man can be. Guard of Honor, to be sure, is full of pointed humor, much of it at the expense of prigs. Yet Cozzens never makes fun of anyone who hasn’t earned it, nor does he suggest that the Army’s flaws and foolishnesses negate the purpose for which it exists. Midway through the novel, Captain Hicks compares the “simple, unlimited integrity” of Regular Army officers like General Beal who “accepted as the law of nature such elevated concepts as the Military Academy’s Duty-Honor-Country” to the more fashionable views of “men who considered it the part of intelligence to admit that Honor was a hypocritical social sanction protecting the position of a ruling class; or that Duty was self-interest as it appeared when sanctions like Honor had fantastically distorted it.” Amused by the thought of what the general would make of such high-minded folk, Hicks imagines him retorting, “What the hell kind of person thought things like that?”

That General Beal’s “simplicity” should be tacitly presented by Cozzens as admirable goes a long way toward explaining why Catch-22 is far better known than Guard of Honor—especially by youngsters who know little of the way the world works. When I was in high school, I was sure that Catch-22 was one of the great American novels. Now I find the baby-black antics of Yossarian and his jeering buddies to be embarrassingly jejune, whereas my admiration for Guard of Honor deepens every time I return to it, as I do every year or two. Perhaps I would admire it less if I had had to go to war, but I doubt it. One need not have dodged bullets to know the sharp tang of truth.

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, nearly all performances sold out last week, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

Arms and the Man (comedy, G/PG-13, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)
The Sea (black comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 26, closes Oct. 12, reviewed here)
1297569336942_ORIGINALWhen We Are Married (comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 26, reviewed here)

The Alchemist (verse comedy, PG-13, closes Aug. 31, reviewed here)

The Liar (verse comedy, PG-13, closes Aug. 31, reviewed here)
Othello (Shakespearean tragedy, PG-13, closes Aug. 30, reviewed here)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespearean comedy, PG-13, closes Aug. 29, reviewed here)

Between Riverside and Crazy (serious comedy, PG-13, reviewed here)

Bullets Over Broadway (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Samuel Butler on lying

INK BOTTLE“Lying has a kind of respect and reverence with it. We pay a person the compliment of acknowledging his superiority whenever we lie to him.”

Samuel Butler, The Note-books of Samuel Butler

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Snapshot: the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1961

TV CAMERAThe Dave Brubeck Quartet plays “St. Louis Blues” in Holland in 1961. Brubeck is the pianist, Paul Desmond the alto saxophonist, Eugene Wright the bassist, and Joe Morello the drummer:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Pass me by

88d51c1286b85d088bc043500df0823aI spent last week in Spring Green, the tiny Wisconsin village that is home to American Players Theatre, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, Arcadia Books, and one of my best friends. I go there each summer for professional reasons—APT is the best classical theater company in America—but I’d very likely find an excuse to go even if there weren’t any shows to see, for it’s one of my favorite places. Whenever I drive through the cornfields, woodlands, and rolling hills that surround Spring Green, I find that other drivers on the road are constantly passing me by. It isn’t hard to see why. They have places to go, but I don’t, unless I happen to be on my way to the theater. All I ever want to do in Spring Green is be where I am.

I appreciated my visit all the more because the season just past was more than usually rough on me, gratifying and exhausting in like measure. A new opera, a new book, the off-Broadway transfer of my first play: these things alone would have been enough to wear me out without taking into further consideration my day job and the various other stresses of my life.

So I treated my trip to Spring Green as something of a working vacation. I filed two Wall Street Journal columns before I left for Wisconsin so that I wouldn’t have to knock out any copy during my stay, and instead of bringing one of the various books about which I’m planning to write in the next couple of months, I packed a half-dozen undemanding novels. The trip, to be sure, was a bit of a slog, for it ended up taking me twelve hours to get from our place in Connecticut to the driveway of Spring Valley Inn, and I didn’t fall into bed until well after midnight. But no sooner did I awake the next day than I felt my troubles slipping from my shoulders, and in between American Buffalo, The Doctor’s Dilemma, The Seagull, and Travesties, I found more than enough time to unwind.

the-vase-of-flowers-1945.jpg!BlogOne of the books that I brought with me to Spring Green was William Haggard’s Venetian Blind, a spy novel whose cast of characters includes a Bonnard-loving industrial magnate who doesn’t know much about art but knows what he likes:

“I don’t disapprove of avant garde. I can’t, for I know nothing about it. But I confess I’m inclined to resent it.”

“Resent it?”

“Yes. I suspect it of trying to teach me something—to convert me. And I don’t want to be converted. I listen for relaxation, you know. Perhaps I’m not really a musical man. But I don’t want struggle or significance or purpose. I want to be pleased.”

Richard Wakeley, looking about the room, could agree….The walls were the palest of apple greens, the pilasters’ capitals discreetly gilded. It was a lovely room, calm and assured, a room for leisure and for formal good manners. Outside it men wrestled with eternal problems: evil and beauty, sin and solipsism. Sometimes the greater the problem the smaller the man. Enormous, insoluble problems. And quite possibly meaningless. Yes, in this lovely room almost certainly without meaning.

RiverThat’s not quite me, but it came pretty close last week. Instead of wrestling with the eternal and insoluble problems that are my customary lot, I allowed myself to relax into the present. I’m back on the East Coast now, reunited with Mrs. T and more than happy to be. Hectic and harassing though it sometimes is, I love my life and am at all times grateful for the increasingly improbable good fortune that permits me to make a living writing about the arts. But man cannot live by work alone, no matter how much he loves it, and so it was both good and necessary for me to slip the traces and spend a few days under the bright blue skies of Wisconsin, enjoying the restorative pleasures of doing nothing in particular.

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Mildred Bailey and the Delta Rhythm Boys sing Alec Wilder’s “It’s So Peaceful in the Country” in 1941:

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Lookback: on the virtue of craft in a time of turmoil

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

I don’t have any illusions about All in the Dances. It’s a short critical biography of a great choreographer, not a philosophical treatise, and while I do think it’s a damned good book, I can’t imagine that it’ll be read a hundred years hence, nor would I dream of suggesting that its publication will help make the world a significantly better place. So why did I work so hard on it at what might reasonably have been thought to be an inappropriate time? Because I believe deeply in the ennobling sanctity of craft. Because I agree with Ecclesiastes’ preacher: Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might. Because it’s mine….

Read the whole thing here.

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I wonder what happened to him?

louis-armstrong-blowing-on-trumpet-tulsa-1954Michael Steinman, one of my favorite bloggers, recently posted something poignant about the central importance of music in his life:

Although I am by nature optimistic and hopeful, before 2004 I was seriously unhappy for long periods of time—situational rather than biochemical despair. The reasons for my sadness are not relevant here. When I was most hopeless, I thought seriously of ending my life. I checked out the Hemlock Society website (earnest but very complicated) and lay on my bed thinking of the items I would purchase from Home Depot that would do the job.

But one thought recurred in the darkness, “Is there any guarantee you will be able to hear music—Louis Armstrong first and everyone else you love — if you kill yourself?” It kept me from putting my plans into action….

I’ve never felt suicidal, but beyond that I think I know exactly what Michael means. While I can, if absolutely necessary, imagine living without music, it would be like living without salt, or love. Kingsley Amis put it nicely when he wrote that “only a world without love strikes me as instantly and decisively more terrible than one without music. Yes, friendship would beat music too, but not instantly.” Indeed, I sometimes doubt that I could truly love a person to whom music wasn’t important—and wonder whether that might possibly be a failing on my part.

All that said, I also know that music is not the first priority in my life. If I had to choose between reading and listening to music, I’d choose reading—with extreme reluctance, to be sure, but without a shadow of doubt.

AT THE PIANO WITH MOMIn a sense, I made that choice, or something close to it, when I decided to become a professional writer instead of continuing to pursue my budding career as a performing musician, splitting the difference by writing about music. Nevertheless, it was a clear-cut choice, and I know why I made it. For one thing, I was better at writing than at playing. At least as important, though, was my belated recognition that for all my passionate love of music, it simply didn’t occupy enough of my mind to satisfy my curiosity about the world. I was interested in too many other things, and I knew that I could write about all of them. To make a living making music, by contrast, is—must be—an all-consuming enterprise, and I wasn’t prepared to be consumed by it.

So I walked away from the bandstand, and though I’ve spent many an hour thinking about the choice I made, I’ve never thought twice about the wisdom of having made it. As I wrote in this space eight years ago in an essay about the last time I played bass in public:

Somebody asked me once if I were a frustrated musician. “No,” I said, “I’m a fulfilled writer.” But that doesn’t mean I never think about what might have been, much less what used to be. The way I feel about having once been a musician is not unlike the way some reformed alcoholics feel about booze. They know they can’t live with it anymore, but they also know how much they liked it, and they remember, as clearly as if it were this morning, how good that last drink tasted. I remember, too.

The point, of course, is that I wouldn’t have made that same choice if music had really been the most important thing in my life. Important it was, immensely so, but not that important—a near-run thing, but not quite.

1385802_10151969648117193_1089373414_nNow I’m a full-time writer, and in the past few years I’ve also transformed myself into a part-time playwright and librettist, a pursuit that has become for me what music once was, only (you might say) more so. It allows me to be creative in a way that best suits my particular talents, as well as to collaborate with other artists in much the same way that I did when I was a musician. What’s more, writing operas has put me back in touch with the working world of music, which is both a blessing and a bonus.

Even so, it isn’t the same as being a musician—and that part of my life, I know, is over for good. The last time I picked up a bass and tried to play it, it was as though I were wearing a pair of mittens: I still remembered where to put my hands and what to do with them, but nothing felt or sounded right. From now on I will never be anything more than a listener, a person to whom music is immensely important but not, when all is said and done, indispensable.

Even now, it still feels strange to me to make this admission, to acknowledge that my identity underwent an essential transformation somewhere along the path of my life, that I am no longer the person I was when young. Stephen Sondheim captured part of the feeling in my favorite of his songs, “The Road You Didn’t Take”: The worlds I’ll never see/Still will be around,/Won’t they?/The Ben I’ll never be,/Who remembers him? But it’s not true: I remember him very well, and sometimes I miss him very, very much.

* * *

From 2000, George Hearn sings “The Road You Didn’t Take” (from Follies) in the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together:

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