While retrieving my New York Times I noticed that it was September 12, 1962. My twenty-ninth birthday, god the time.
On my stroll from the Harvard Club, where I lived, to my office on Third Avenue, I became pleasantly aware that Manhattan island was waking up from its summer snooze. Grand Central Station was discharging male human hordes whose white jackets, dark shirts, white neckties, and deep suntans turned them into negative prints of their winter selves. Even the weather had returned from its beach holiday; a friendly breeze licked my face.
My first phone call was from Ben Fairweather’s Miss Finnegan: “Unless you’re busy, Mr. Lovelady, he’d . . . ”
“Come in anyway,” I said. “And why not? He’s the boss.”
On my desk was a registered letter with a Hallmark birthday card attached to Mom’s certified check for $200,000.00.
Thanks to good old Mom, I could now emulate Ben and force my underlings to listen to my monologues! Seriously, I could open my own publishing shop, quit promoting schlock, and for a change start printing reading matter deserving the name of literature.
But ambition soon spawned a sort of post-coital skepticism. Even to today’s dreamers, alas, the film and soundtrack are mightier than the typewriter.
However, the book business was still very good. Our country boasted a literate president who had written at least part of a good piece of non-fiction.
Although fiction itself was in a cyclical depression, literary criticism never had it so well. Universities overflowed with the new breed of critics, some of them apparently arriving in flying saucers.
Structuralists told us that the Oedipus of Sophocles owed its glory to a lame foot. And the hermeneutics crowd became adept at turning oak trees such as Hamlet into acorns.
But one of these over-nights, I fondly presumed, literature would suddenly mushroom into something as creative as Big Bang science. So let the coroner-critics perform their autopsies on our masterpieces. I was waiting for the authorial renaissance and what better reason for going into the publishing business?
Sometimes, it was hard to see the roses for the thorns, though. “Because of rising production costs,” Ben Fairweather was now gravely rejecting all manuscripts that promised great reviews but small sales. Not quality but number had become the name of the publishing game. And paths of numbers led but to the compu. . .
“If you’re busy, Pod . . .” It was Ben with his usual cat-to-mouse humility. For answer, I poured him a coffee which he ritually saccharined, although forty pounds overweight from too many canapés.
“This is my morning to think,” I explained.
“Who,” I corrected. “Who in coming generations will be capable of comprehending the new literary masterpieces, if there are any? Today’s students seem to be having a hard time merely understanding one sentence written by such as Henry James, Joyce, Faulkner, Austen, or George Eliot. I mean, Ben, are you and I following or whipping a dead hearse?”
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY SON,” shouted Ben, picking up Mom’s birthday card, with check attached. “I did not spend my time in the OSS for nothing, Pod. Your Mom is your backer, your angel. Poor thing! I’ll miss you and these morning dialogues.”
“Monologues,” I corrected. We fell silent together, looking at workers entropizing in the other glass houses across Third Avenue.
Finally, Ben said, “No stones are thrown. Just bullshit.”
Monologue time. Obligingly I prompted, “Why poor Mom?”
“Because our tank thinkers have picked the wrong Nemesis. What’s going to get us finally is not the atom bomb but TV.”
“Illiteracy is not fatal,” I scoffed. “Turtles can’t read.”
“Our species is too sexy to self-destruct. By us I mean us book people. Your poor Mom’s money will be whipping a dying horse. TV is the paradigmatic pedophile, the ultimate child-rapist. Babes trained from birth to think via images. Language, writing, speech are based on logic. Alice in Wonderland has to be written credibly. But there are no syllogisms in a sequence of images. Image A does not have to be true in order to believe Image B. The winning image is the most socko one. Soon, the only writing will be in scenarios.”
Miss Finnegan tiptoed in whispering, “There are two gentlemen in turbans asking for you, Mr. Fair . . .”
I spent the remaining working hours of my twenty-ninth birthday in the New York Public and J.P. Morgan Libraries doing research on a projected coffee-table art book tentatively titled: Juana the Mad Master.
I emerged from the Morgan Library just before five to find myself under a black cloud much bigger than the island of Manhattan. Riding up to my twenty-ninth floor office, I was startled to relate my business address to my age. In the foyer, Ben had his fiction editor pinned against the wall with one more gleaning from his vast anectodagery:
“Together in a hansom cab! Can you imagine how Joyce’s vile Gauloise cigarettes must have exacerbated Proust’s asthma?”
Dis-lapeling the fiction editor, he neatly blocked my quarterback sneak with, “Wait, Pod, I want to pin a p.s. on this a.m.’s dialogue.”
“Circa 1990 you publishers will discover that reading manuscripts is not cost-effective. So you’ll return all of them unopened.”
“If you present publishers paid us readers half the wages this city pays its subway changemakers, Ben, manuscript-reading would not be cost-effective now.”
“Come, come, Pod. All you speed-readers come down to us from the Ivy League not for salaries, but to sneakily learn our trade so your Moms or Pops can set you up in business. Have you leased your offices yet? And do I get any thanks for training you?”
“Ummm. So who reads after we stop reading?”
“The literary agents, who else? They’ll decide on what you publish,” Ben cassandrized and I said, “At least you left us one job, thinking up titles.”
I joined Ben, standing at the window. In the towering transparency on the other side of the avenue, there was one patch of fluorescence where business did not, this moment at least, prevail. A female figurine entered an open door. A male figurine locked the door and they embraced, kissing voraciously.
Ben said, “A clearcut case of harassment.”
I quoted “Leda and the Swan,” “A shudder in the loins engenders there the broken wall, the burning roof and tower and Agamemnon dead.”
Ben counseled, “Tomorrow’s editors will delete Agamemnon, Pod. To their readers, he’d sound like a new medicine for constipation. And forget titles. Like politicians, they will be chosen at supermarket exit polls.”
“In your model Limbo will there be any room for authors?”
“There needn’t be. By the year 2000 any assembly line word-processor can be programmed to write any book on any topic. But publishers will still use authors for jacket photos and TV talk shows. You’ll seed them like tennis players, based on their sales figures.”
“But if reading per se is not cost effective, how can the literary agents rule the presses the way the talent agents now decide what movies we’ll see?”
“Easy. Agents will charge authors fat reading fees. That will be the biggest money in the book business, my boy.”
Across the avenue, the kissing stopped. Then the lights over there went out. I had intended to ask Ben how the real writers, the likes of Scott Fitzgerald or George Meredith, would manage to get themselves discovered, but I already felt the answer.
There would be no real writers in this new world that was siamesing its young, not to a printed page, but to a picture tube. For without readers, who would be possessed by the lust to write?
My mind completely clear and completely made up, I said, “Ben, if you still want to hire me, I will invest Mom’s birthday present in IBM stock, not any sort of publishing venture.”
“Good. Welcome back, Pod. About salary, maybe I . . . “
“No raise. I want the first year off, though. I’ll be back on my thirtieth birthday. Deal?”
Ass-deep, that’s what my desk area was when I returned to it, on my thirtieth birthday, per sacred promise to Ben Fairweather. Junk mail, real mail, but mostly memoranda. Whatever else my new status might be, I had neither been missed nor needed.
Twelve months of globe jogging had altered office more than jogger. New decor. On the walls, two credos in needlepoint: one that Nietzsche himself might have embroidered: COMMIT THYSELF! and the other a Calvinist bit of non-sense gussied up by Grandma Moses: WORK IS AN ETHIC!
Obviously, no one had been aware of my absence, for the memos date-spanned the entire year. I pushed a strange new button on my intercom. Miss Finnegan’s clone appeared. She muttered “Multi-nat now, sir.” I asked her to remove the embroidered pep-talks and she left with them mumbling “have a nice . . .
I bent to the immense task of extracting from the myriad memos a storyline that might tell me who, what, where, and why I am.
In a deal fraught with murk, mystery, and suspicion, Benjamin Fairweather had sold his publishing company to a TV network that had previously been acquired in the merger of a Hollywood studio giant and a monster talent agency, which after a bitter stock battle had been taken over by an Arab oil consortium that also possessed the Mary Jones Smith & John Smith Jones Foundation that controlled a British intellectual magazine called Enlightenment, “The distinguished world-opinion moulder for moulders of world opinion” whose assets included English-language rights to a long list of foreign authors. One memo six weeks old told me the list “sorely needs pruning, advancewise.”
But I had yet to discover exactly who owned me. Twelve weeks back, my salary had been tripled by my new boss, “Thereby of course rendering your continued reading of literary manuscripts cost defective.”
Then, nine days ago, on purest rice paper waxed with ring seals of Arabian splendor, had come a hand-delivered denouement! All memos led from, and all strings were pulled in, Damascus. I was a toy, a plaything, of Shahs and Sheiks and Emirs, who were transferring me immediately to the Enlightenment office in London “to cull the foreign author list. The prior policy of advancing advances to literary contractees having poor track records is obsoleted.”
I opened my new desk drawer to discover a stack of Fairweather Publications stationery, which informed me that Ben was still Chairman of the Board, a self-fulfilling prophet of his own monologues.
Sadder but wiser, I now fully understood the folly of carving a life out of anything as low in the pecking order as reading or writing. Mom’s birthday gift had gone in the right direction.
But what about now, my future, this London offer? Ideals? Self-respect? I got rid of those pests by changing one word. My road to Damascus would not be a career but a game. Enlightenment would be a fun way to go. If the game got too unsporting or boring, I’d cry foul and send myself to the showers.
I picked up my awesome back-salary checks, noting my new boss was an Invisibility named “Malsi.” After squash, drinks, and dinner at the Harvard Club with a couple of classmates, I caught the Concorde to Heathrow.
Although there is not all that much to choose between the two, Persian Gulf money prefers Claridge’s to the Dorchester. Verdi’s choice of music’s greatest composer also applies to these two hotels: “Naturally Beethoven and of course Mozart”
As to cutting foreign authors off at the pockets, when playing Sardonics (the name of my new game), the choice is even simpler: Keep the ones with the Gucci loafers.
Before my spectacular rise to sipping split-pea soup in a Claridge’s suite, most of my previous London hours had been spent under that great, quasi-religious dome where Edward Gibbon, Karl Marx, Max Beerbohm, Virginia Woolf, and Rebecca West had once scribbled their hearts out. The jewel in the crown. The navel of Western civilization. The repository of all eons, epochs, eras. The British Museum Library.
Alas, my new salary had rendered it cost defective. Waiting patiently at one’s desk for the flunky bearing the volumes of one’s choice was an affordable pleasure for the clerks and dons and fellows and scribbler chappies, but no longer for me.
I had more pressing business, such as rushing frenetically to 37, 38, 39 Savile Row for my Henry Poole fittings. Or power luncheons in Les Ambassadeurs negotiating such serious financial investments as the Aston-Martin DB7.
Like traffic jams, altered states, and pandemic pollution, the New Illiteracy finds all of us guilty. Especially me.
So, hail and farewell, British Museum Library. I’ll always treasure the memory of those good old days when I was poor enough to afford you, when I was Leda and you were the Swan.