When Lily was learning to drive…

…she was eager to come along on errands, so as to practice. I remember some good talks, sitting side-by-side, looking straight ahead rather than at each other, intimate but not confrontational.

IMG_3910I came across this passage in a book I chanced on in the library, Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game, by Karl Ove Knausgaard (a Norwegian) and Frederik Ekelund (a Swede). I’ve read two or three of Knausgaard’s multivolume memoir. My Struggle. Ekelund, a member of a national team of Swedish authors, is a prolific novelist with no works in English. During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, they corresponded about their experiences, Ekelund’s in Brazil and Knausgaard’s in various places in Europe.

Ekeland wrote the following:

Version 2

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My family…

My uncle Chookie’s son Steven Oster died July 28, age 59; My cousin Mary Pobar Finnigan died September 30, age 74, my age. I never knew Steven, but I adored Chookie (né Charles), my father’s youngest brother, who as a young man looked like the actor John Derek.

This photograph was taken in Kenosha WI on September 2, 1945, V-J Day, the day Japan surrendered to end World War II. Left to right in the rear were my mother, Mildred (Milly) Oster; Jerry Dirks, husband of my Aunt Anna Oster, my father’s second oldest sister; Jerry’s brother, name unknown—by me. In front, left to right, were me, age 3; Chookie; my father’s youngest sister Florence (Flossie). Note that Jerry Dirks arranged his popsicle sticks in a V for Victory.

VJ day

Flossie told me recently that my father’s mother had warned us not to drive to downtown Kenosha because of the crowds, but that my mother had insisted. (At my father’s memorial service in Kenosha in 2009, Chook recalled a time when Milly took some of the family ice skating and when the ice wasn’t good at one spot drove everyone to another spot—without taking her skates off.) Note my beautiful mother’s hairdo and spiffy suit and shoes. Note that I wasn’t about to stop working on that popsicle, world peace or no world peace.

I was born on January 22, 1943, which means that I was conceived 40 weeks earlier, in May 1942, five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. I asked my mother shortly before she died in 2009 whether my conception was born of optimism or neglect. She said, “We thought that we would win the war and that life would go on.” This photograph has always seemed to me the quintesscence of optimism, even without knowing the context.

Mary Pobar and her sister Janice were my school vacation pals for three summers in the 1950s. I lived with my parents in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, and would fly to Milwaukee in June and stay with my mother’s parents in Kenosha. Unescorted kids were rare in those days, and a flight attendant (then known as a stewardess) would buy me a Coke—a particular treat because it meant going to the lounge of the Northwest Orient Airlines Stratocruiser, reached by a spiral staircase.

Mary and I were about 10-13, Janice was a year older. They and their brother Michael, who was several years younger, were children of my mother’s brother Edmund Pobar and his wife Janet.


Here we are in July 1955: Michael and Mary on the backseat, Janice riding shotgun, me at the wheel, which is ironic because I didn’t become a licensed driver until we moved to North Carolina after 1992.


This is us a year earlier, with our grandparents, John and Tillie Pobar, Ed and Milly’s parents. The setting was the MacWhyte’s picnic, an annual event staged by our grandfather’s employer, the MacWhyte Wire Rope Company, which made cables for suspension bridges. (In an email to Janice, I said I thought her collar looked very tight. Her reply: (“I think I looked very fashionable.”)

Earlier in his life, when the Pobars lived in Chicago, our Grandpa John worked for a bootlegger, which meant the family had a car, which is probably how my mother knew how to drive. (Note the missing top knuckle on John’s middle right finger in the picnic photograph, amputated in some accident that was never explained to me. I stared at it constantly.) (Note also Tillie’s hair and and dress and pearls, which was how she faced the world every day.

I was shocked to find these photos among some that Janice gave to me when Trisha and I visited her at her home in San Juan Capistrano CA on a trip we took to southern California in 2013. This is Tillie as a girl, date and place unknown. Also unknown to me is the deadpan expression and the cowgirl outfit. Tillie and John were born in Lithuania and spoke Lithuanian to each other and to some close friends.


The photograph below is of Tillie and my mother, with a note on the back that it dates from “about 1923,” when Milly was 8. I never saw Tillie with her hair down; she was from a generation when women wore their hair down only in front of their husbands.

Milly (8), cat, Tillie, 1923

Here’s a letter I wrote to Mary’s husband, Steve Finnigan, in Rice Lake, WI, with memories of those days:

Mary and Janice and I were great pals for several summers in the 1950s in Kenosha. We were ages 11-14 or so. I lived with my folks in New York City and l’d fly to Milwaukee every late June and spent July and August with my mother’s parents.

Those Kenosha summers were like something out of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, updated, Several days a week, I’d ride a bike over to the Pobars’. Ed and Janet’s I don’t remember ringing a bell, I think l iust walked in. I always felt welcome, though God knows there must have been many days when one or more of the Pobars thought, Him again?

Mary and Janice and i would bike down to Pennoyer Park and swim for hours. There were jetties made of concrete blocks that we swam into and through, holding our breath while we felt our way around a right angle turn and out to the other side You’d think our parents would have objected, but l’m sure they did exactly the same thing when they were kids,

At one end of Pennoyer Park was a stone breakwater we called The Spiles, The trick there was to climb up the rocks and jump off feet first into the lake. There was some wave action on windy days, so we’d have to time our jumps so that we didn’t smash onto rocks.

I don’t remember adults. I don’t remember being picked up or dropped off, We were on our own, free lancers. We figured out how to get places and how to get back, l’m sure we had fights, but we settled them ourselves. On Tuesday nights, l’d meet Mary and Janice at Washington Bowl for the weekly bicycle races, We’d slather on bug spray (at the lake, by the way, we never used sun lotion, let alone sun screen), eat hot dogs and cotton candy, and cheer on our respective favorites. Names I remember are Buzz Misch, Swede Strangberg, and Bob Pfarr, There were several young riders, male and female, that we had our respective crushes on, and we’d goad each other to cheer demonstratively for one favorite or the other.

I have vivid memories of what was probably my last Kenosha summer. Elvis Presley had landed on earth, Buddy Holly, the Dell Vikings, We were their followers, I remember a hot night in an upstairs bedroom at the Pobars’, the lights out, listening to music on the radio or perhaps a phonograph, probably all of us wishing we were with somebody other than our cousins

Anyway, I loved Mary, though I never would have been able to put it that way, and I suddenly miss her terribly, miss that time, those days, those palpable, palpable memories of childhood and adolescence, There was a particular temperature and scent and sensation of summers in Kenosha, and Mary was part of all that. ln her obituary photograph, even in profile, I can see the girl she was. A great, wonderful girl.


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Jeanne Moreau

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, Brigitte Bardot frightened me. She was too sexual. Like Janet Leigh. And Jane Russell. My first great film loves were Emmanuelle Riva, in Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959)…


and Jeanne Moreau, in François Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” (1962).


Riva died in January 2017, Moreau on July 31, both at 89.

Her New York Times obituary said Moreau was an actress whom “journalists liked to call the thinking moviegoer’s femme fatale.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines femme fatale as: “An alluring and seductive woman, especially one who leads men into compromising and dangerous situations.” Moreau’s Catherine, in “Jules and Jim,” was certainly not like any woman I’d ever known—or have known since, sexually promiscuous but—or and—with the ability to remain friends with all her lovers, who became and /or remained friends with one another.

I saw “Jules and Jim” at the now vanished New Yorker theater, on Broadway between 88th and 89th Streets, the year it opened, my sophomore year at Columbia. I didn’t see many movies in those days, because I didn’t have a lot of extra spending money. I don’t know if I was conscious at the time that the movie changed my life, but that was certainly the case. I’d never seen anything like it: its voice-over narration, stop-action animation, the sense that its story could not have been told in any other medium. For a great many years, years when seeing a movie meant going to a movie theater, I saw “Jules and Jim” every year at one or another of New York’s repertory revival theaters. I’ve owned a DVD for years, but can’t remember the last time I watched it. I always cite it as my favorite film, but I guess I think of it as a film to be seen in a big room in the dark among others. I brought the DVD with me on a visit to Black Mountain NC to see Lily, and I’ll see if I can interest her in a memorial viewing.

Truffaut based his film on a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. I don’t think I’ve ever read the book, and I just ordered an English translation. Roché was nearly 80 when he wrote it and it will be interesting to see if it has the movie’s vitality and, though it is ultimately a tragedy, love of life. Fans of the Roché novel or the book should click on this link. I was never aware that another Truffaut film, Les Deux Anglaise et le Continent (“Two English Girls”), was made from a Roché novel.

In my movie reviewing days with the Daily News, I met Truffaut at a party thrown by the French film office in connection with the New York Film Festival. (It may have been the same party when I ran into Leonard Cohen, who’d been a school friend in Montreal of my friend Wendy Keyes, a director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Film Festival’s producer. The party was full of young French actresses, and Cohen sidled up to me and said rather mournfully: “All these French women…They’re so beautiful.”)

I made the mistake of telling Truffaut that “Jules and Jim” was my favorite film. Whatever movie he’d just made was surely his current favorite film, not the 12-or-so year old “Jules and Jim.” I’m sure he was polite, but the conversation didn’t go far.

While we’re at it, I can report that I had a more enthusiastic response from Eric Rohmer when I told him I admired his 1969 film, “My Night at Maud’s.” Admired it so much that on my first trip to Europe in 1971 I made a stop in Clermont-Ferrand, a university and industrial city in central France where the film is set. The movie’s characters spend a lot of time in cafes and bookstores, and the city was striking to me for the number of bookstores and outdoor equipment shops. It is best known as the headquarters of the Michelin tire company, and Rohmer said that my visiting there would be like his visiting Pittsburgh.




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More profs…


Lionel Trilling, smokin’

Back in May, the New Yorker published a review of a biography by Natalie Robins of Diana Trilling: “The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling.” Trilling and her husband Lionel Trilling were members of the New York Intellectuals, a group of mid-20th century writers and critics sometimes referred to as the American Bloomsbury. Wikipeda’s alphabetical lists of the group’s members includes Hannah Arendt, Daniel Bell, Saul Bellow, Elliot Cohen, Midge Decter, Leslie Fiedler, Nathan Glazer, Clement Greenberg, Paul Goodman, Richard Hofstadter, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Irving Kristol, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, William Phillips, Norman Podhoretz, Philip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, Delmore Schwartz, Susan Sontag, Harvey Swados, the Trillings, and Robert Warshow. I doubt that any but Bellow, McCarthy, are Sontag are familiar to general readers of today.

Lionel Trilling taught a class in 20th literature that I look in 1962-63, my junior year at Columbia. He was well known for a book of essays, “The Liberal Imagination” (1950) and less well known for a novel, “The Middle of the Journey” (1947). “The Liberal Imagination”‘s current publisher, NYRB Classics, calls it “one of the most admired and influential works of criticism of the last century, a work that is not only a masterpiece of literary criticism but an important statement about politics and society.” Though I’ve never read the book, the impression I had was that it was a work of genius.

According to the biography of Diana Trilling:

When Lionel finished his first book [a study of Matthew Arnold], he thanked Diana in the preface for her assistance. (“I cannot calculate its full sum.”) Then, perhaps in a fit of bitter pride, he destroyed the pages she had filigreed with her edits, blotting her from the literary record. She was crushed. Nearly a decade later, the same fate befell drafts of his only novel, “The Middle of the Journey.”

Interestingly, Diana Trilling became a best-selling author in 1981 with her book “Mrs. Harris,” an account of the trial of prep school headmistress Jean Harris for the murder of her lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, creator of the Scarsdale Diet.

I have three memories of Trilling:

  • He was an impeccable dresser. He wore what seemed to me a different tweed sport coat every day (the class met three times a week). They all looked good enough to eat.
  • In his lecture on James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” he departed from his usual form by asking us a question: how would we characterize the relationship between Stephen Daedalus and Buck Mulligan? He wouldn’t let go of it. A couple of classmates took stabs, and he waved them away. It got uncomfortable. Trilling wanted the answer; we had no clue. I needed help with many things I read in college and to get through “Ulysses” I had read or at least skimmed William York Tindall’s “Reader’s Guide to James Joyce.” I remembered Tindall’s observation that Stephen paid the rent for their shared lodgings in the Martello tower while Buck kept the key. The tension grew. I dared to raise my hand. I had certainly never raised it before and I don’t recall that I ever did again.  “Stephen pays the rent,” I said finally, hoping my voice didn’t quaver or crack, “and Buck keeps the key.” “That’s it,” Trilling blurted, and swiveled away to make the rest of his point. I don’t know that anyone turned to look at me gratefully. I don’t know that the room exhaled. I do remember that a friend in the class who had read a little Tindall too chided me later for quoting Tindall more or less directly. He went on to a successful career in publishing; I became a published novelist. So there’s that.
  • On the day in I guess the fall of 1962 (my course with Trilling ran two semesters) that John Steinbeck won the Nobel literature prize, Trilling came to class agitated. Students and teachers smoked in the classrooms of Hamilton Hall (and elsewhere) in those days in accepted breach of a university no smoking rule, but Trilling enforced the rule from the start, saying he was a smoker and that if he could go an hour without a cigarette, so could we. On that day, Trilling said he needed a smoke and that anyone who cared to could join him. Flame and smoke erupted all over the room.

I don’t remember Trilling’s objection to the award. I do remember that he said the only American writer he thought deserving of that honor was James T. Farrell. I had never heard of Farrell, much to the distress of my father when I told him. An autodidact, he’d grown up on Studs Lonnigan.

In researching this blog, I discovered that Trilling wasn’t the only one dubious about the award to Steinbeck. This is from the New York Times of January 4, 2013:

The decision came amid their general dissatisfaction with the candidates for the prize that year, according to documents recently released by the academy.

As has become its custom, after a 50-year waiting period the Swedish Academy released documents on the internal deliberation of its committee members as well as a privately kept shortlist for the literary prize, The Guardian said,citing a report in the Svenska Dagbladet of Stockholm.

According to The Guardian, 66 authors were put forward for the literature Nobel in 1962, and the list was narrowed down to Steinbeck, Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell, Karen Blixen and Jean Anouilh. But after looking at the field of contenders a committee member, Henry Olsson, wrote, “There aren’t any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation.”

Blixen, the Danish author who wrote “Out of Africa” under the pen name Isak Dinesen, became ineligible when she died in September 1962. Graves, whose novels included “I, Claudius,” was nonetheless regarded primarily as a poet and Olsson, The Guardian said, was reluctant to give the prize to an Anglo-Saxon poet until Ezra Pound, whose work he greatly admired, died. (Although Olsson objected to Pound’s politics.) Durrell’s series of novels “The Alexandria Quartet” was not yet considered a significantly substantial body of work (the author had also been passed over in 1961), while Anouilh, the French dramatist, had the bad fortune to come between the 1960 Nobel victory of his countryman Saint-John Perse and the ascent of Jean-Paul Sartre, who would win in 1964.

So the prize was given to Steinbeck, whose body of work consisted merely of such enduring novels as “Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden.” In awarding the Nobel to Steinbeck, the Swedish Academy offered no public hint of its internal weariness, citing him for being among “the masters of modern American literature” and “for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception.”

(In that last paragraph, I suspect that “weariness” is a typo, and that the Times writer meant “wariness,” although the Academy may have been weary too.)

All I knew about Diana Trilling in my college days was she and Lionel lived near the Columbia Campus on Claremont Avenue. Someone told me (I think the same friend who had read Tindall) that she characterized Claremont Avenue as “the liberal causeway of America.”

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Ted de Bary


De Bary as I remember him.

I had several illustrious teachers at Columbia College between 1960 and 1964—more than I was smart enough to know how to take advantage of. James Shenton (American History), Lionel Trilling, Eric Bentley, and F.W. Dupee (English), Dustin Rice (art history) were among them.

(Edward W. Tayler, who was to become illustrious, was in his maiden over as an instructor in the English Department. To hear him tell it, he was just a couple of hours ahead of his first-year students, me among them, in reading Homer, Dante, and other exemplars of European civilization. More about Tayler, who weirdly connects me to my daughter, Lily, another time.)

Perhaps the most esteemed of my teachers, since he really created his field, Chinese studies, was Wm. Theodore de Bary, who died this week at the age of 97. (Wm. was his surname, altered to distinguish him from his father, who divorced his mother when he was young.)

De Bary, along with Japan expert Donald Keene and India expert Ainslee Embree (whose christian name I just pulled from deep in my memory vault), taught a one-year course called Oriental Traditions, each of them taking a third of the academic year. I have few memories of Embree (who I just discovered died in June, at the age of 96), except I think he was my first encounter with a Canadian accent. He was born, according to his Washington Post obituary, on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, “in a village that no longer exists.”

Keene, who is still alive at age 95 (the field must prolong life), I recall mainly for an awkward moment when he tried to extract from us the title of a work of European literature whose plot resembled that of a Japanese classic.  He was very disappointed that we weren’t familiar with André Gide’s Strait is the Gate (La Porte Étroite).

De Bary was tall and kind of austere, but not intimidating. I remember a wonderful moment when he was describing a moment in Chinese history and hesitated over how to accurately describe the state of affairs in a particular province. Someone far more confident than I ever was around those three minds (I can’t imagine how I managed to write a paper or an exam that demonstrated knowledge that would pass muster with any of them), spoke up from the back of the room and suggested that the region had been “beset by civil strife.” De Bary laughed, as did we all, grateful to be given the cliché he’d been trying to avoid. I’ll never forget how the moment brought him down to our level and how graciously he welcomed the descent.

In my last year at Columbia, I was invited to the home of a classmate whose father, it turned out, had been a Columbia classmate of de Bary’s, class of 1941. My friend told me later that his father had remarked to his mother, after being introduced to me, “My god, he looks like Ted de Bary.”

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We were sitting on the deck of the Front Street Grill in Beaufort NC, our favorite July restaurant, and an immense single-masted sailboat went by on its engines. We couldn’t make out its name or home port. It’s ensign was either this:

bermuda flag

The flag of Bermuda. Or this:

ontario flag

The flag of the Canadian province of Ontario.

I know that because I quickly Googled “British Commonwealth flags,” and those were the two candidates among the search results.

We got more interested, however, in this flag:

niue flag

The flag of Niue.

We’d never heard of it either. Here’s where it is:


niue location

Here are some landscape vignettes from the official tourism page:

niue landscapes

This is a chunk of Wikipedia:

In 2003, Niue became the first country in the world to offer free wireless internet to all its inhabitants. Niue Island Organic Farmers Association is currently paving way to an MEA (Multilateral Environmental Agreement) committed to making Niue the world’s first fully organic nation. A leader in green growth, Niue is also transitioning to solar power, with help from the European Union. In 2015, Niue started providing phone landlines to all of its inhabitants. In 2008, Niue became the first country in the world where laptops are provided to all its school students. A highly democratic nation, Niueans enjoy high freedom, with elections every 3 years. There are no political parties in Niue; all assembly members are independents. The last political party, Niue People’s Party (1987–2003), won once, but was subsequently disbanded in 2003.
In January 2004, Niue was hit by Cyclone Heta, which caused extensive damage to the entire island, including wiping out most of the south of the capital, Alofi. The disaster set the island back about two years from its planned timeline to implement the Niue Integrated Strategic Plan (NISP), since national efforts concentrated on recovery.

Now you know what we know.

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She blows!

The carcass of a 32-foot male sperm whale that washed up on Cape Lookout NC in 2005, a relative of Moby-Dick. Note the teeth in the lower jaw; they’re for grabbing and ripping, the marine biologist docent at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort explained. These whales don’t chew their prey; they swallow them whole. This particular whale had the beaks of 18 or so squid in its belly, along with an octopus or two. There are vegetarian whales, blues and humpbacks, that have instead of teeth baleen plates, plastic-like sheets with comb-like teeth that filter out small crustaceans and plankton from mouthfuls of sea water.


Version 2

Also on display, suitable for touching, was this whale’s heart, the size of a very large pumpkin and the consistency of hardish clay or soft plastic. After we’d touched it, another docent, a young woman, said “now you’ve played with a whale’s heartstrings.”




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