I just sent an e-mail to Harcourt containing my final changes and corrections to the second-pass proofs of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. “I am now signed off on the text of All in the Dances,” I wrote, taking a deep breath as I typed those words and another as I clicked the send button. Barring any unexpected glitches (or last-minute catches) at Harcourt’s end, the book that goes to the printer this week will be the book whose text I have approved. I’m all done.
I’ve been feeling rather strange about All in the Dances in recent weeks, and especially since I started working on the galleys last month. I spent a full decade at work on The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, and by the end of that time, it had become an oppressive, inescapable presence in my life, not unlike the “heavy bear who goes with me” of Delmore Schwartz’s once-familiar poem. I wanted nothing more than to be rid of it. All in the Dances, by contrast, took me just three months to write, and throughout that period I was simultaneously preoccupied with the imminent publication of A Terry Teachout Reader. Before I knew it, one book was written, another in the stores, and within weeks I’d embarked on the lengthy process of seeing the first one into print. As a result, the experience of writing All in the Dances now seems unreal, almost dreamlike to me. Did I really write it this past winter? Could it possibly be ready to ship off to the printer?
The second-pass proofs arrived via Federal Express last Friday, and I spent yesterday and this morning combing through them line by line, hoping against hope that my eye had not yet grown so numb as to cause me to overlook any remaining mistakes. In the end, the list of changes I e-mailed to San Diego was reassuringly short, but not so short as to make me distrust my good judgment. I fixed two outright errors, one a mistranscribed word in a Serge Diaghilev letter (I spotted that one), the other a tiny but embarrassingly significant factual slip-up in the next-to-last chapter (the managing editor spotted that one, God bless him). I changed or deleted five repeated words and phrases (my personal bugaboo). I made minor adjustments of emphasis to two phrases, the second of which was in the very last paragraph of the book (got to get that one right!). I changed two punctuation marks and queried the hyphenation of three words. Finally, I asked the editor to make two typographical adjustments, both of which will be invisible to anyone not fanatically obsessed with such dainty matters.
So that’s that. I’m not quite finished–I still have to approve the layout of the photo insert and proofread the captions–but the book itself is now definitively complete. And yes, I still feel more than a little bit strange, this time for reasons I couldn’t put into words until just now, when a coin dropped in my head and I recalled something Samuel Johnson wrote in the final installment of The Idler, his second and last series of periodical essays:
Though the Idler and his readers have contracted no close friendship, they are perhaps both unwilling to part. There are few things not purely evil of which we can say, without some emotion of uneasiness, “this is the last.” Those who never could agree together shed tears when mutual discontent has determined them to final separation; of a place which has been frequently visited though without pleasure, the last look is taken with heaviness of heart; and the Idler, with all his chillness of tranquillity, is not wholly unaffected by the thought that his last essay is now before him.
This secret horror of the last is inseparable from a thinking being whose life is limited, and to whom death is dreadful. We always make a secret comparison between a part and the whole; the termination of any period of life reminds us that life itself has likewise its termination; when we have done anything for the last time, we involuntarily reflect that a part of the days allotted us is past, and that as more is past there is less remaining.
Grim thoughts to be thinking about a book of which I’m still intensely proud! (The doubts and second thoughts will come calling later on.) But they’re all of a piece with the uneasy feelings that most of us New Yorkers are experiencing these days. As I drove through the Lincoln Tunnel last Friday afternoon, and rode past Citicorp Center in a cab late Saturday night, I saw cars filled with unsleeping policemen, on guard against unknown nightmares. I’ve been hearing more helicopters in the air of late–or perhaps I’m simply noticing them more often. We’re all thinking night thoughts in broad daylight, and there’s nothing to be done about them but live our lives. George Balanchine, who nearly died of tuberculosis as a young man, had something to say about that: “You know, I am really a dead man. I was supposed to die and I didn’t, and so now everything I do is second chance. That is why I enjoy every day. I don’t look back. I don’t look forward. Only now.”
Dr. Johnson is my hero, the man I admire most and from whose life and work I have drawn inspiration throughout my own life–but today I’m with Mr. B. All in the Dances is finished. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t do any more to it. Now it’s time to move on to the day’s next task. I have a lot of things to do this afternoon, after which I plan to dine with a friend and go see a movie. Tomorrow will have to take care of itself. It always does.