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|We are all obliged, if we are to make reality endurable, to nurse a
few little follies in ourselves.
Within a Budding Grove
(translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff)
F THE DIFFICULTIES that arose during the writing of “The Static of the
Spheres,” no other posed so intriguing a set of challenges as the need
to create a preoccupation for Guppa, something that he could do in his
living room of an evening, in the quiet hours after dinner, that would
be the equivalent of his practicing culling clams.
Guppa’s clam-culling skills were legendary.
When he had worked on the line at the clam-packing plant, he had been an
inspiration to anyone who worked beside him, and at the annual Clam Fests
he had won the culling competition for twelve years in succession, a record
that stands to this day. When he became foreman of the culling section
and retired from active day-in-and-day-out culling, he practiced at home
in the evenings to keep his hand in, so that when a new culler joined the
crew or when Guppa thought that the work was slowing, he could step over
to the galvanized table where the clams were dumped and put on a display
of speed and accuracy that was still dazzling, still inspiring.
So that he could practice at home, in the privacy
of his own living room, while listening to the radio, and later while watching
television, he would arrange in a semicircle in front of his favorite comfy
chair a set of peck baskets into which, while blindfolded—or at least,
during the television years—without looking, he would toss clams that were
randomly arranged in a bushel basket between his feet. Arranging
the clams randomly again after Guppa had culled them became my job as soon
as I was old enough to perform it.
At first, immediately after Guppa had retired from
active culling, he had used clams straight from the bay, but these quickly
became too smelly for Gumma to tolerate. For her part, Gumma liked
to spend an evening curled up on the sofa with a slide rule and a book
of recreational mathematics problems, very much as I have described in
the pages that follow. She said that the stink of the clams made
it hard for her to think straight, that the clams reeked and her head reeled.
So Guppa and I undertook a project that threw us together for long and
happy hours in the cellar, at his workbench. We constructed practice
clams. Guppa would open the clams and remove the edible portion.
I would scrape the insides of the shells clean and wash and dry them thoroughly.
Together we mixed mortar to use as ballast in each clam, so that the heft
would be realistic. Guppa measured varying amounts of the mortar
for each clam, so that each would vary a bit from the average weight for
clams their size, which Gumma calculated, throwing herself into the problem
with great intensity, covering sheets of paper with notes and numbers.
Guppa spooned the right amount of mortar into a clean valve, and then after
the mortar was dry I glued the opposite valve to it.
The memories of the time that we spent in the cellar,
working together, are among the most pleasant of my childhood. I
would gladly have related them just as they were, and would probably have
called this work “The Cement Clams,” but in “My Mother Takes a Tumble”
I had made Guppa a Studebaker salesman rather than a foreman in the culling
section of the clam-packing plant, and now I felt that I was stuck with
that story, just as I found myself stuck with the little lie about the
hard candies that my great-grandmother offered me in “Do Clams Bite?”
So, I worked out a comparable kind of practice for a Studebaker salesman
of the first rank: categorizing potential buyers according to the sales
pitch most likely to succeed with each—culling of another sort.
So far, so good. I thought that I would call
this “All in the Cards.” Ah, but then when I tried to imagine Guppa
and my ten-year-old self passing happy hours in the cellar at work filling
out note cards, I realized that it was not a project that would have held
my attention for the long periods that constructing practice clams had,
and so I cast about for something else that Guppa and I could do together
in the cellar. I put myself back in Gumma and Guppa’s living room
and looked around for something that might inspire me. To my surprise
and relief, the solution came to me at once. I found myself twisting
the dials on Gumma’s magnificent multi-band radio and wishing that I had
one like it. Guppa and I would build a shortwave radio.
THE SECOND MOST VEXING PROBLEM arose after I wrote the sentence that
now stands as the last one in the bathroom scene. At once, I began
to have misgivings about the whole scene. I meant to go on, and I
meant to be quite frank, but I hesitated, because I realized that the scene
would succeed only if it were at once frank and delicate. I didn’t
want to seem prudish, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself either.
I didn’t want to describe the bathtub shenanigans that I had concocted
for Eliza and me in a way that would mean injuring Eliza or disturbing
the perilous balance that I had in mind for this work.
I went downstairs to the lobby, where Albertine
was behind the desk, working on the accounts. I lit a cigarette and
began pacing up and down. Al didn’t look up. I began sighing
whenever I passed the desk, but still she didn’t look up. I began
muttering “damn-damn-damn” under my breath. Al put her pencil down
and leaned on the desk.
“Okay,” she said. “I hear you. What’s
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said.
“I’ll give you two minutes,” she said. She
went back to work.
After about a minute and a half, I said, “Well,
I’m having doubts about a scene in which Eliza is giving me a bath.
I think it’s very important, because it leads to the confusion of motives
for my wanting the shortwave radio—the mixture of sexual desire, jealousy,
pride, anger, and my simple ingenuous hankering for a shortwave radio.
But I’m afraid that if it isn’t handled just right it will look like an
unnecessary sex scene and that it will embarrass Eliza to boot.”
“Why don’t you ask Eliza what she thinks?” she suggested.
My jaw dropped. Al and I have been married
for more than twenty years, but still there are times when I am not sure
whether she possesses a surpassing understanding, an uncanny percipience,
or is just not listening to me most of the time.
“There is no Eliza,” I said. “I made her up.”
Al looked at me as if I were a nitwit and went back
to work. I trudged back upstairs. At least half an hour passed
before I decided what to do. I dialed the desk from the phone in
“Small’s Hotel,” answered Al.
“Al,” I said. “Will you be Eliza?”
“Will you take me to lunch?” she asked.
“Okay,” I said.
“Sure,” said Al.
I TELEPHONED ELIZA AT ONCE to invite her to have lunch with me.
Eliza is now sixty-three. After Dudley Beaker died, she stayed on
in the stucco house on No Bridge Road, at the end of which there is now
“Hello?” she said, in the small and tentative tone
she uses to answer the phone, as if she expected a call from a creditor
or a grasping relative.
“Eliza,” I said. “It’s Peter.”
“Peter, darling,” she said, switching at once to
the voice she uses with friends, a voice like velvet or cognac or pot
“Eliza, will you have lunch with me?” I asked.
“Oh, I think that would be delightful,” she said.
“When would that be?”
“How about one-thirty?”
“Oh, you mean today.”
“Oh, well, yes, fine. I wonder if I have anything
that I can wear? I’m standing here in a Chinese robe. You don’t
think I could wear that, do you? No. I know what, why don’t
you and the gorgeous Albertine come here, and I will fix you some lunch?”
My heart stopped for a moment, though I was certain
that the offer wasn’t genuine.
“Nonsense!” I said. “I insist that I take
you out somewhere—just you and me. Al is otherwise engaged.”
I held my breath.
“Oh, well,” she said. “Fine. I think
I can put some outfit together.”
I let a long sigh out to one side of the mouthpiece, and I was
sure that I could hear a similar sigh from the other end of the line.
Both of us were relieved. None of the domestic arts was ever an interest
of Eliza’s, because, she said to me once, “Not one of those activities
gets you anywhere. After cleaning a house, you’re merely back to
where you were before the place got dirty. After you’ve cooked, eaten,
and cleaned up after Thursday’s meal, you can’t say that you are anywhere
but where you were after you had cooked, eaten, and cleaned up after Wednesday’s
I suggested that we eat at the Manifest Destiny
Diner, a favorite haunt of mine, which I like for its Wild West motif,
its thick ’n’ juicy Vanishing Buffaloburgers, and its frosty mugs o’ beer,
but she wanted to try Pussy’s, a new place downtown, where the sign that
directs one to the toilets says Litter Boxes, a hamburger is called a Cat’s
Meow, soup is served in heavy earthenware bowls that say CAT on the side,
and the staff smiles relentlessly.
“Something from the bar?” asked a waitress, before
we had quite settled in.
“Yes indeed,” said Eliza. “Drinks.”
The waitress smiled but did not laugh.
“Vodka and soda,” said Eliza. “No ice.”
“I’ll have a martini,” I said. “Straight up,
with an olive.”
Al stepped out of character for a moment.
“I’ll have the same,” she said, “but with a twist. Forget the vodka
While we were having our drinks, Eliza read what
I had written so far of the bathroom scene. She handed the manuscript
back to me and asked me to order her another vodka and soda. She
winked when she said it, so I ordered her another martini. She asked,
“Well, Peter, what comes after this?”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you,” I said.
The waitress brought Eliza’s drink, and I decided
that I’d have another too.
“Well,” said Eliza, “of course, it’s up to you,
but I think that, if I were you, I would not include anything explicitly
erotic. I would think that it would be much—better—more effective—to
just provide pretty much what you have—or maybe just a little more—some
disconnected sensory details that would invite the reader to imagine an
erotic—situation—taking either your part or mine—chacun à son
goût, don’t you think? Just mention in a list—say—the smooth,
wet, and slippery body of a boy of—ten, I think—a cotton blouse, damp with
steam, clinging to the breasts of a voluptuous woman of thirty-four—her
blond hair pinned up—a strand or two falling over her forehead—droplets
of steam on the mirror and the white tiles—the tiny sound of popping bubbles—millions
of tiny popping bubbles—hissing and crackling—like champagne or static—muffled
by the clouds of steam—the light diffused by the steam—vague highlights
on the boy’s smooth, wet skin—her hands in the warm water—the warm water
enveloping the boy’s body—the slick, smooth skin along his thighs—his wet
hand along her arm— the rounded tops of her quite lovely breasts when she
leans over the edge of the tub—the firm pressure of the tub against her
belly—her hand brushing against his smooth thigh—that sort of thing.”
THEN CAME THE THIRD PROBLEM: the flood. I had nearly finished
the manuscript when nature interrupted my work and divided my attention.
Most of the material was there, though a few things were still out of place
and there were still some unanswered questions and some voices that I could
not quite hear clearly. Rain began falling one night and continued
to fall for eight days. Throughout that time, Babbington was nearly
invisible: it was only a set of vague gray shapes beyond the rain.
The water level in the cellar of the hotel rose steadily, and there was
nothing we could do to stop it. We worked for hours each day bringing
endangered tools, supplies, and mementos up to the safety of the ground
floor. I was so concerned that my jars of nuts and bolts and the
like would be disorganized that I insisted that we place things around
the hotel in the same positions that they had occupied in the cellar.
When the waters receded, I set up in the cellar every fan that we had,
and in a couple of days the place was more or less back to normal.
We carried everything back to the cellar and arranged it as it had been.
Then only the last and most perilous of the difficulties
was still to be overcome: doubt. It was as if, while I was distracted
by the flood, Fat Hank had moved into my workroom.
At about the time that I began work on “The Static
of the Spheres,” Albertine brought home two large cartons of wood from
which she planned to build a miniature of Small’s Hotel. She had
in mind a true miniature, not just a representation of the exterior.
She would build with miniature framing, tiny nails, sheathing, and clapboards.
Best of all, she had bought a set of tiny, precise tools: a square, a plane,
saws with teensy teeth, a mitre box, and so on.
She was at work on her small hotel throughout my
work on this, and I suppose that the rhythms of her miniature construction—the
tap-tap-tap of her little hammer, the back-and-forth whisper of her little
saw—underlie some passages. But that is by the way; I want to say
something about the materials themselves.
When she brought all the stuff home, we spread it
out neatly on the tabletops in the dining room and spent quite a while
just handling all of it and looking at it.
“You know, Al,” I said to her, “this is just like
the moment when Guppa has all the parts of the radio lined up on his workbench.
I have the same anticipatory feelings, the same mixture of excitement,
eagerness—and fear. I sense, in all this cute stuff you brought home,
what I should sense in the parts of the radio when they lie in ranks on
Guppa’s workbench—the presence of a potential magnificence, something that
I’ve found in the parts of other things before they’re assembled.
The components might be—oh—a clutter of memories, boxes full of thin slabs
of basswood and slender dowels, or ranks of vacuum tubes, resistors, capacitors,
transformers, and the like. Sleeping in these things is the capacity
to become a book, a dollhouse, or a shortwave receiver. One has the
feeling that merely by gathering the parts, one has made a step toward
realizing the end.
“‘Ah,’ one is tempted to say, ‘the pieces are all
there. Now all I have to do is put them together.’
“But—” I said, dramatically, “—it may be better,
sometimes, to leave the pieces as they are, unassembled, for the potential
book crackles with wit, the shutters on the potential dollhouse are straight,
and the signals picked up by the potential receiver are clear and strong,
but the actual book is going to have its passages of half-baked philosophy
and weepy sentimentality, some of the shutters on the actual dollhouse
will hang at odd angles, and the receiver may bring in nothing but a rising
and falling howl muffled by a thick hiss.”
Al laughed at me and told me to get upstairs and
get to work, and I did.
March 18, 1983