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April 28, 2008

TT: Northward glance

I sent Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong off to Harcourt, my publisher, last Friday, and I also sent it to two people who knew Armstrong and offered to read the manuscript. So begins the long and complicated process that will lead to the book's publication a year or so from now.

In a perfect world I'd celebrate by going on a vacation, but I haven't had much luck with that in the past--I took a week off to visit my mother when I finished my Mencken biography, only to be stranded in Smalltown, U.S.A., by 9/11--and in any case a New York drama critic doesn't get to take any time off at this time of year. I saw Cry-Baby the night I finished writing Rhythm Man, The Country Girl two days later, and two more shows, Thurgood and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the day after that. Yesterday I wrote a 2,500-word essay about Gustav Mahler for Commentary, and today I have to write Friday's Wall Street Journal drama column. Tomorrow I fly to Santa Fe by way of Dallas and Albuquerque, about which more later, and on Thursday night I'll be in Brooklyn, watching Endgame at BAM Harvey, with three more shows to come on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Contrary to popular belief, my life isn't always this hectic, but as I pointed out last week, I didn't plan to be finishing Rhythm Man and The Letter at the same moment, much less to have that moment occur simultaneously with the peak of the Broadway season. In the ever-relevant words of James Burnham, if there's no alternative, there's no problem, and since there's definitely no alternative, I'm at least trying to behave as if there's no problem.

51GP6MlQF3L._SS500_.jpgOne of the ways in which I cling to normality in the midst of frenzy is to read something each day that is irrelevant to my proximate concerns. For the past week I've been periodically immersed in a book I've long wanted to read, Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night. MacLennan, a Canadian novelist and essayist who died in 1990, is all but unknown in this country. (You can read about him here.) So, of course, are most Canadian artists who stubbornly insist on living in their native land instead of moving south, which says more about America than it does about Canada. Edmund Wilson praised his writing in O Canada: An American's Notes on Canadian Culture, perhaps the least well known of his books, in which he compared MacLennan to Balzac and said that The Watch That Ends the Night was "invested with a kind of poetry that, to a reader living in the United States, makes Canada seem almost exotic." But even though I read O Canada many years ago, I didn't remember what Wilson had to say about MacLennan--I had to look it up on my New Yorker CD-ROM set--and the only reason why I knew about The Watch That Ends the Night, which was published in 1959, is that I once ran across a mention of it in a biography of Glenn Gould.

At any rate I finally got around to reading The Watch That Ends the Night last week, and I was knocked flat by it, so much so that I had to ration the number of pages I allowed myself each day so that I wouldn't be distracted from my deadlines. I intend at some point in the next couple of weeks to discuss it in the weekly book column that I write for Commentary's Web site, so I won't jump the gun here. Suffice it for the moment to say that I feel inclined to rank it alongside Peter de Vries' The Blood of the Lamb, an equally ill-remembered novel of similar vintage and subject matter (both books have at their center a woman who is suffering from a fatal illness and are narrated by a man who loves her).

A few years ago I quoted from The Blood of the Lamb in one of my daily almanac entries:

We live this life by a kind of conspiracy of grace: the common assumption, or pretense, that human existence is "good" or "matters" or has "meaning," a glaze of charm or humor by which we conceal from one another and perhaps even ourselves the suspicion that it does not, and our conviction in times of trouble that it is overpriced--something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

That quote caught the eye of my friend Maud Newton, who subsequently read The Blood of the Lamb and later cited the University of Chicago's paperback reprint as her favorite novel of 2005. I don't know whether The Watch That Ends the Night would hit Maud as hard as did The Blood of the Lamb, but I do know that it hit me as hard as any novel I've read in the past decade. I plan to devote all of this week's almanac entries to it.

The Watch That Ends the Night is out of print, but a new edition is about to be published in Canada, and in the meantime used copies are easy to order. I commend it to your attention.

Posted April 28, 2008 12:00 AM

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