Essays - Spring 2009

I Wanted to Be Robert Phelps

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By Michael Dirda

March 1, 2009


 

As one reads through the correspondence between Robert Phelps and James Salter, it gradually becomes clear that these are love letters. The talk is of the literary life, of magazine pieces, plays and movies, of revered “makers” like Colette and Stravinsky, of long walks in Greenwich Village and loneliness in Aspen, Colorado. But quite plainly the two men—both married and one a celebrated coureur de femmes—cannot get enough of each other. Six months after they first meet, Salter writes from Colorado: “Why don’t you work here? I miss you and there’s nobody to speak avec.

Nearly anyone who ever spent an afternoon or evening with Robert Phelps will attest to his wondrous charm. Composer Ned Rorem, writer Dan Wakefield, poet Richard Howard—all these have memorialized Robert’s perennial youthfulness, his generosity of heart and spirit, his genius for friendship. Last year, at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, a panel on “New York in the 1950s” opened by paying homage to Phelps as the very embodiment of the era’s literary life. It included two of Phelps’s good friends—Dan Wakefield and the novelist and former head of the Columbia writing program, Stephen Koch—and it was organized by Phelps’s former student at the New School, Derek Alger. Yet still another admirer was in the audience, and that afternoon he couldn’t help but think back to some 40 years ago.

We met in May of 1968, when I was 19 years old. I was on my way to a summer in France and en route stopped in New York, my very first visit to the city. Somehow I managed to figure out the subways and eventually emerged at Union Square, then strolled, wide-eyed, through bright sunshine to 6 East 12th Street. After I’d rung the buzzer on the mailbox, Robert came bounding down the stairwell, two steps at a time. He was the father of my college roommate, but might have been his brother: black tousled hair, white T-shirt, corduroy jeans, Clarks Wallabees on his feet and a boyish grin on his face. We trudged up the steps to his book-lined aerie and by the end of that afternoon—of literary gossip and two robust Tanqueray martinis—I was drunk. I also knew that I wanted more than anything in life to be him.

We came from similar backgrounds—I grew up in Lorain, Ohio, eight miles from his hometown of Elyria; I attended Oberlin College, where he’d spent a year or so. Most of all, though, I too had long dreamed about being a writer in New York, of living by my pen and wits in an apartment full of books—real, hardcover books. On that first day Robert showed me a set of uncorrected page proofs of Randall Jarrell’s The Third Book of Criticism, which he’d been assigned to review. I’d never seen page proofs before. Little did I know that I was looking at my own future.

At that time Robert and his wife, the painter Rosemarie Beck, shared a large two-room apartment, plus kitchen and bathroom. But Robert actually worked in a little cubby off the brownstone’s stairwell on the second floor, a kind of janitor’s closet fitted out with a desk and a chair and a few shelves. Its single window looked out on 12th Street and sometimes passersby could glimpse the writer or his shadow typing away. This in itself seemed an enchanted space, a kind of street-level garret, what Auden would call “a cave of making.” Only later were Robert and Becki able to rent another floor in their building, so that he was finally able to have a room of his own.

It was, to my eyes then and still, the perfect room. The wooden floors had been stained black, the walls completely lined with bookshelves. Curtains were always kept drawn, blocking out the day and night. A pole lamp stood next to a rather high-tech chrome and leather easy chair, while extension lights were clamped to the corners of bookcases. On a coffee table in the middle of the room there always lay page proofs, literary magazines, publishers’ catalogues. Instead of a sofa, a daybed butted up against the back of a freestanding bookcase and was covered with pillows embroidered with scenes from classical mythology (Becki’s handiwork). Near the music corner—lots of Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Ravel LPs—stood a long low set of white shelves on top of which rested more books, some heavy tumblers and a big bottle of Tanqueray gin.


Robert’s books were clearly read and read again, underlined and marked up, very much used. Since he preferred the muted tonalities of book cloth, few had kept their bright and garish dust jackets. But before discarding the djs, Robert would sometimes cut out the author photos and glue them into a big album labeled “The Poet’s Face,” later enhanced and transformed into his irresistible The Literary Life: A Scrapbook-Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene from 1900 to 1950 (co-authored with his friend Peter Deane).

So it was that in this comfortable living room-bedroom-study Robert padded about, surrounded by his favorite authors, most of whose works he owned in toto: W. H. Auden, Colette, Cyril Connolly, Glenway Wescott, Louise Bogan, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Jouhandeau, James Agee, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rayner Heppenstall, Paul Leautaud, Brigid Brophy, and many others. Take one of their books from the shelves and you might find a quotation or two gracing the end papers (in a thick bibliography of Henry James, Robert scribbled “Art is concerned with production—Aristotle”) or perhaps an old postcard, or a review clipped from a newspaper, or even, in the case of T. S. Eliot, a commemorative postage stamp. In his copy of Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle, Robert noted that in 1946 he had stolen the book from a department store in Cleveland. A first edition, too. When Robert Phelps loved a book, it became his book, as much as the author’s.

Robert’s work desk was simplicity itself: a sheet of painted plywood across two low metal filing cabinets. Near at hand, reference works: a Larousse French dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, the little Annals of English Literature 1475–1950 (“the principal publications of each year together with an alphabetical index of authors with their works”). Robert craved facts, dates, chronologies, and particularities, and once expounded a theory about Shakespeare’s love life, based on a careful study of the birthdays and stage productions listed in E. K. Chambers’s biography. As I recall, he speculated that the bard’s brother may have cuckolded him. That same day he mock-solemnly intoned that a critic really only needed to know three things about writers: their sexual tastes, the state of their health, and where or how they got their money.

On the wall above the plank work table hung a four-by-six-foot bulletin board adorned with notes, pictures, more quotations, and even hand-cast astrological charts. In the center Robert had pinned a photograph of himself strolling down a country road in tennis shoes with novelist Glenway Wescott; next to it an exhortation from Auden: “We were put on earth to make things.” In those days, Robert always typed on a portable manual typewriter, preferring to use yellow, green, blue, or even pink paper. It was like a Christmas treat to receive a letter from him and discover inside a splash of color, cool acquamarine, soft goldenrod. He thus brightened not only the day but many days, for his letters would be read and reread, like this one from MacDowell Colony, written to me on yellow paper in the early 1970s. I quote only one paragraph of many:

I’m working on a memoir-novel this month, with a quiet cabin deep, deep in the birch and maple woods. I have a piano to bang on when I’m blocked and I croak Schumann and Poulenc to my own accompaniment. I’m here from 8:15 to four. Then I go back to my sleeping room, shave, nap, and at precisely 5:30 mix myself a massive Tanqueray martini (6 parts gin, 0.1 part very dry vermouth and a twist of lemon peel over four cubes of ice). Dinner’s at 6:30 and by 8:30 I’m in bed with my Garzanti dictionary or Valéry or Renard. The autumn colors are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in 15 years. Yesterday I drove 6 miles to visit Willa Cather’s grave in a tiny village called Jaffrey Center. . . . I think I have a review in next week’s Life, or the one after that. At least I wrote it and they paid me; of Forster’s posthumous novel Maurice.

Robert liked to quote the religious thinker Simone Weil—“We really possess nothing on this earth but the power to say I”—and he himself loved anything that revealed the personal, inner life of a creator, that made the writer present on the page as a breathing, human, preferably all-too-human, being. He once wrote:

Parable, fable, fiction are all fine. I want them. But whether I gracefully justify it or not, I also want diaries, letters, marginalia, table-talk, all the non-official forms by which men have also revealed their mystery, disguises, wishes, feints. . . . Whenever a writer, any writer, uses some semblance of his own first person and tells me something about himself or the world around him which only he could have known, then a viable community of two is formed as I read. It can be a friend or a stranger. But more than the literary art is involved, and I must bring more than my safe aesthetic responses. The encounter may be joyous. It may also be maculate, messy, perturbing, as human relations often are.

In Robert’s view, as he once confessed in a piece about Colette,

There are two classes of writers: those whose subject is the human heart, and those whose emphasis is upon all the other, perhaps more important possibilities in human experience. The latter include many of our most illustrious and bewitching contemporaries, from Valéry to Kafka, to Pirandello and Virginia Woolf. The former include all of my favorite writers, from Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Colette. Compare All’s Well That Ends Well, Persuasion and Julie de Carneilhan. Does any writer know any more about love than the other? Aren’t they in this respect peers, all three of them, for all the ages?

Robert would certainly include James Salter in his preferred category. Writing to Salter on October 2, 1970, he says “you are a minority of one; a new herb in the cabinet; and, at the least, the most romantic writer we have.” Perhaps the most erotic and heartbreaking, too. When Robert later inscribed a copy of Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime for me, he called it “a book I love and envy.” I was by then a graduate student in comparative literature at Cornell, with little time for casual reading, but I immediately sat down with the novel and finished it in one evening. Related in sentences as clear as rainwater, this story of a love affair between a young American and a French girl was a paean to the life of the senses and to driving fast cars and sex and France itself. Its final paragraph is perfectly simple, and—given all that has gone before—perfectly heartrending:

As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes now, or did. She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.

A few years later on, in 1979, I reviewed Salter’s Solo Faces, a novel about mountain climbing—for The Washington Post Book World, where I had recently become a staff writer and editor. Shortly thereafter, its author unexpectedly phoned up—he was in Washington, might he drop by?—and we were soon sipping coffee in the Post cafeteria and talking about writing and Colette and Isaac Babel and, of course, Robert.

By then our friend’s shaky paw had been diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease, and writing had become extremely difficult for him. Still, with what effort I can’t imagine, about this time he produced a superb review for Book World—a front-page review—of an early biography of Auden by Charles Osborne. Unable to work on his own writing, Robert instead focused his energies on his teaching. Whether at Manhattanville College or the New School, his classes would always end up reading his favorite works of prose or poetry—and these could be distinctly original, echt Robert: D. H. Lawrence’s memoir of Maurice Magnus; the libretto of The Magic Flute; short novels like Colette’s Bella-Vista, Henry Green’s Loving, and Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk; James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. Robert once wrote to me about these classes:

The kids are square and semi-literate but not unvaliant. Most of them stay awake at least. To my surprise they liked Cavafy, including his erotic side which, of course, I emphasized. Auden they respected but were bored by—too many big words. Firbank was too campy-seeming for them to take “seriously” but they loved Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. Next week, Genet, whom most of the class regard as a gay-lib Terry Southern. I must disabuse them.

Through some magic Robert could make any piece of writing subtly his own, even a classroom syllabus. One course, entitled “Available Light,” is headed with two lines from Wallace Stevens: “After all, they knew that to be real each had / To find for himself, his earth, his sky, his sea.” It ended with a sentence from Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno”: “For I have seen the White Raven and Thomas Hall of Willingham and am myself a greater curiosity than both.” In Robert’s classes there were never any final exams. As he used to say, citing Auden, “Thou shalt not answer questionnaires / Or quizzes upon World-Affairs, / Nor with compliance / Take any test . . . ”

Throughout his life, and especially in his later, illness-plagued years, Robert was tormented by a sense of failure, of never having fulfilled his promise. Yet his work has lasted. In his introduction to this first installment of the Phelps-Salter letters, John McIntyre refers to the neglected novel Heroes and Orators, as well as the notable books on Colette and Cocteau. But Phelps also edited the letters of James Agee to Father Flye, Ned Rorem’s early diaries (which he encouraged the composer to publish), Louise Bogan’s essays on poetry, and the journals of Glenway Wescott. I can vouch that there are few better browsing books than The Literary Life, a “calendar view of literature in England and America” during the first half of the 20th century, comprising “pictures, gossip, homage, warnings and clues,—together with laurels, letters, lists and whispered asides.” As it happens, this oversized album was published in 1968, and, with typical generosity, Robert sent me a copy that September, not long after we had first met. I’ve since carried the book with me my whole life; it has been on my bedside table wherever I have lived. I have read it over and over.

The year of letters published in this issue represents just the beginning of the Phelps/Salter correspondence. Many more pleasures lie ahead. I’ve been lucky enough to read the next two years’ worth of exchanges, and they show the two writers growing ever closer. Each dashes off the kind of letters that would take most of us a week to compose. Here’s Salter admonishing Phelps (and himself): “We must catch the train, Robert, we must move, otherwise life takes you, makes you soggy. We’re wearing cheap shoes, we must stay ahead of it.” And here’s Robert to Salter:

Your letters are part of my gospel. It seems to me it was only Monday morning that I read your Rome letter as I walked across Union Square (and under the equestrian statue of Geo. Washington which Henry James described in “An International Episode”) on my way to cover an overdraft at the bank. . . . And now, Friday morning, again on my way to the bank, I find you’re back in Aspen.

You are wrong about my “life.” It would be correct only if it were productive of worthy books. As it is, for 20 years, I have only scrounged at making a living: a low standard of survival and hundreds of articles, reviews, flower arrangements of other people’s prose, etc. Not a good form of hell at all. This has become terribly clear to me in the past 6 weeks when I have been going through sheaves of old printed matter with a view to making our publisher a book called Following. I have been appalled by the waste, the thousands and thousands of irretrievable words on which nevertheless I worked long and hard and sometimes until 5 a.m. No. Somewhere I took a wrong turning. I should not have tried to earn my living with my typewriter. I should have become a surveyor, or an airline ticket salesman, or a cat burglar. As it is, I am far far beyond the point of no return and such powers as I once counted on—the ability to write to order and out of my own battiness, so to speak—are suddenly gone. All this week I have tried to write two thousand words on Don Quixote for Playbill (sic). The pay is honest: $300. The assignment would have thrilled me 10 years, five years ago. But today I am sterile, mute, empty-headed, helplessly, obstinately uninspired. Even Dexedrine is no help. And at times my poor right hand shakes so violently I have to laugh. The message is explicit: no more hacking, which is to say, no more earning a living at this “desk of a man who cannot be bought,” etc.

Thank God I have a teaching assignment next semester. That may be a temporary solution. Meantime I fret and read and walk around Manhattan. Do you know about Ravel? In his last five years, he suffered from a brain tumor which gradually paralyzed his mind. One day his great friend Hélène Jourdan-Morhange visited him and found him sitting on his balcony at Montfort-L’Amaury. “What are you doing?” she asked, and Ravel looked down at her and replied, “J’attends” [I’m waiting].

Meantime we have had a glorious nor’easter, which came smashing through one of my front windows, hurtling broken glass and manic water all over me as I lay in bed. And I have dined with Miss Lucia Marinetti—daughter of the futurist—elegant but too Milanese (business-minded) per me; and helped celebrate John Cage’s 60th birthday, or birth-year; and listened to the election returns (but only until 10:30), after which I went back to my book-of-the-month, Quentin Bell’s biography of his Aunt Virginia Woolf. Superlative. Don’t believe that dreary square on the front page of the NY Times.

Today our Jamaican maid Rosa is here, singing to herself, murmuring to the cat, and generally swabbing about. . . . It’s lovely here today—shiny-bright air, Viking blue sky, fire engines shrieking on Fifth Avenue, a letter from Aspen in the mailbox.

Oh, Robert, there are no letters like yours.

Read “Dawn of a Literary Friendship,” by John McIntyre, presenting the correspondence of Phelps and Salter


Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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