By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak
Sometimes you have to take the long way around to get back home
In Memory of Edward Albee, who died this night, and of Robert Fagles; and for living teachers like Martin and Nancy, as well as Lewis Campbell.
Whenever I’m reeling from calamity and struggling to regain equilibrium, I think about the qualities I get, or would like to get, from my three old cats, particularly in their manners of facing their final days and months: From Mesha, my black and white European male, grace. From Hopey, my tortoise-shell calico, determination; we had just moved, in 2007, to the burg of Les Eyzies, known as the capital of pre-history after the discovery in 1860 (not far from our home) of the first vestiges of Cro-Magnum man (more boneyards). She must have thought the river we lived on the largest bowl of water she’d ever seen – inveterate faucet licker that she was – and returned from a coma to march three times to the banks of the Vezere, panting and pausing along the way (and breaking into a wheezy trot when the black horse next-door ran towards us, she thought chasing her, the electrified fence invisible to her eye). From Sonia, resilience; if a cat has nine lives, I counted 14 for her, the number of times my Siamese defied death, particularly in her last year before her battery finally ran out at 20-something. For me, determination has often come after failing at something when I no longer had a clear reason to want to succeed at it, then trying again when one became apparent. Inevitably the failure — when a situation no longer worked — came when the bottom fell out of my social life. So it was that I left Princeton — once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to study with people like Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Fagles, Stephen F. Cohen, and Ellen Chances (Russell Banks on the other hand was obnoxious, insisting on smoking in class even though it was against the rules) not being enough to keep a lonely 19-year-old in school (today I would go back just to have time to read; education is wasted on the young) — then came back not so much to study but because I wanted to be a journalist. Already as a freshman I’d risen to founding managing editor of the campus weekly and exposed a case of “collusion” between the student government president and vice president and certain editors of the daily newspaper involving a future governor of New York destined to be hounded out of office by a sex scandal and an eventual Supreme Court justice. (“Collusion” in quotes because there was nothing criminal or illegal about it; the principal personalities involved were all members of the same eating club, and “colluded” to support the candidacy of a fellow club member as the new president. My story earned the epithet of “Yellow Journalism” from a future New Yorker editor.) In my second go-round at Princeton, I’d tried out for a student group called the University Press Club whose members served as correspondents for local and national papers and wires, and had no sooner been accepted than, covering for everyone over Winter vacation – “Nothing ever happens” – I ended up writing a front-page story for the daily Trentonian when Princeton’s nuclear fusion reactor started up for the first time. Covering again over the summer – “Just fireman’s duty, really” – I ended up writing about the Princeton gargoyles and several other stories for the New York Times, and was then kicked out of the club because I refused to stop writing for the paper when the regular stringer returned in the fall, my Times editor agreeing with me that my required abdication was ludicrous. My social circle collapsing again – and, already writing for the Times and thus earning money as a journalist, having no clear reason to remain in school in an environment where I felt isolated and ostracized — I’d left Princeton for a second time, but not before an all-night squabble in the Princeton cemetary (located in the Black part of town) with my best student friend, a Republican from Texas whose father had fought with the Irgun. All I remember from this argument is his insisting that like China and Russia I needed to have a five-year plan, this as we maneuvred around the tombs of the theologian Jonathan Edwards and Grover Cleveland, finally calling it a night when we stumbled upon Aaron Burr, the former vice president who killed Alexander Hamilton in an infamous duel. (Though, as Samuel Burr, president of the Descendents of Aaron Burr Society, once told me, Burr had gotten a bum rap, the myth that he provoked the duel being “a bunch of hooey” propagated by the Sons of Hamilton.) When I got back to my dorm room, I found a copy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and a paper plate on which my friend had written “Who is John Galt?” and signed, “Your friend, Andrew.”
When I pleaded personal problems in trying to get some understanding from university officials for my falling attendance, the student affairs vice president (who we called “the Kraut” for her German accent and severe manner) was unsympathetic, chiding me, “Other students are able to have personal problems and not let it affect their school work.”
I’d come to peace with my ambivalent feelings about Princeton when I lived in New York in the late 1990s before moving to Paris — about my failure to finish my studies, as I viewed it. In fact, a sponge for learning even if I didn’t graduate, I’d absorbed some valuable lessons, notably a loopy but brilliant lecture by Chances, a Russian literature professor who with her raven hair and flaxen skin resembled Anna Karenina, about how we all live in and try to encadre everything in boxes, and Professor Oates’s theory that the Suicide (she used it as a noun) is not really expressing a wish to die, because you can’t wish for a negative, but another wish, e.g. “I want you to listen to me,” “I want to teach you a lesson,” etcetera; all this in a pamphlet she’d given me after I’d written a first-person story in which I spoke of committing “slow suicides”; only Joyce Carol Oates could critique a Suicide. (Another student in the class, J.D. Salinger’s son, had written a short story about his elusive father vanishing in the rain after exiting from the back-door of a car.) My first creative writing teacher at Princeton, Reginald Gibbons, a poet who knew it, had not wanted to pass me on to the next level. He’d been annoyed by a story I’d written in which I’d sliced up each typed page to one-inch wide ribbons each of which had only one word, my way of dealing with a ruptured friendship with an Italian girl, Sonia, who had been my best friend in high school, neither the professor nor me being aware that I was only following in the tradition of Apollinaire in allowing form to follow function. So I’d appealed to Joyce, submitting another tale I’d written hatched by closing my eyes and typing five letters which more or less approximated “ELYSIUM”; I was aping a novella by Oates in which she claimed to be channeling a dead Portuguese poet (she even sub-titled it, “Tales from the Portuguese.”) When she over-rid the poet Gibbons and accepted me into her advanced creative writing course, I made the story my first submission for the class. Everyone hated it but Joyce, who liked my expression “the mysterious phlegm.” (It was only when she savored the expression out loud that I realized it wasn’t pronounced PHLEGEM.) Distressed by my classmates’ rejection, I sought Joyce’s advice. “I never read my reviews,” she solemnly told me, a declaration I recalled years later when a critic for the Saturday Review, writing about a novel in which Joyce had been inspired by Fagles’s translation of the Oresteia to open her story with a flock of winged black birds a.k.a. Furies, compared her to Snoopy hacking out “It was a dark and stormy night” a la Bulwer-Lytton, provoking an irate letter to the magazine from Oates. (Speaking of Fagles, and of suicides, that he was the most eminent translator of the Greeks of his epoch did not mean he was too aloof to be aware of and sensitive to the tumultuous reality of his barely post-adolescent charges. One afternoon he walked into our seminar, clearly distraught, with a clipping from the Washington Post about a student who had killed himself after reading “Oedpius” – his translation. Slowly making the circuit of the table and looking each student in the eyes while gripping the clipping, he carefully implored us, in a voice simultaneously stentorian and soft, “I want to make sure that none of you has misunderstood what this is about,” the moral of the Greek tragedy being, in his interpretation, that “Oedipus had to be burned to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.”)
My other best friend at Princeton, my precept teacher for Chances’s Russian Literature course, by then a dean at the university, and in whose eyes I’d thought myself a failure, did not even remember when I visited Princeton in the late ‘90s that I hadn’t graduated. Sometimes our failures loom larger in our own eyes than in the eyes of those whom we think we’ve disappointed.
So — getting back to early Spring 2004 and Paris, where I finally had the opportunity to resolve my outstanding issues with my alma mater and claim it as my alma mater (as Jerry in Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” says, “sometimes you have to take the long way around to come back home”) — when I found myself once again struggling socially in the midst of a foreign culture (because the stratified prep school culture of Princeton was just as, if not more, foreign to me, a graduate of San Francisco’s Mission High School, the most cosmopolitan high school in the country, as the often calcified French one), willing to try anything to improve my prospects I looked up the Princeton Alumni of France (they’d nixed calling it simply the Princeton Club of France because the acronym was the same as the Parti Communist Francais, and G-d forbid that an alumni association of the school that produced John Foster Dulles and harbored George Kennan after Mr. X should share an acronym with the Communists). As it turned out, the first gathering was a reception at a tony private club on the rue faubourg St.-Honoré (as in the cream pastry, but richer) for Shirley Tilghman, Princeton’s first female president. (Coincidentally, visiting Princeton on my 40th birthday in 2001 shortly before I left for France to be treated to lunch by my old best friend the dean at the faculty dining club, and stopping by the Communications Office, where I’d cut my chops as a reporter for the in-house campus weekly, I’d been handed a press release announcing Tilghman’s appointment.) At the Q & A in Paris, I raised my hand.
“Princeton has not always been great about helping students with problems; when I had difficulties I was told, ‘You’re a Princeton student, you should be able to cope.’ And not having gone to a prep school, arriving as a freshman I thought I was dumb, just because I did not understand the terminology like other kids who had gone to prep school did. Have you done anything to change this?” Shirley — as she’s often referred to — explained that the university now realized that one can get into Princeton and still have learning problems, and has a program set up to help such students.
Afterwards, Pamela W., the president of the club, with whom I’d exchanged e-mails (it turned out she lived in my first Paris neighborhood, Sabine’s, in a compact sixth-floor apartment in a banal sienna brick elevator building above the Franprix super-market off the rue des Martyrs, which she shared with an older Siamese cat, Boris, who could have been Sonia’s twin, and an elderly poodle, Natasha), invited me to join a group of club officers being taken out for dinner at a chi-chi restaurant in the 1st arrondissement by the Princeton Alumni Association. Pam was seven years older than me but, despite my general later life predilection for younger women (having dated older women in my twenties – we’ll spare you those stories…for now), and that I generally wasn’t turned on by women who wore their hair short (or, as Fitzgerald might put it, ‘bobbed,’ like Bernice’s; Pam’s was a neat auburn) I was drawn by her lithe arms, bare and tawny that night in a sleeveless dark brown top. She’d been among the first group of women to enter Princeton (another story I’d written about for the Times), and had lived in Paris for 17 years. Pam had a gleam in her eye and a slight up-turn to her thin lips that said you and she were the only ones in the room in on a joke, or rather who saw the situation as amusing. (What was amusing here was that to get me invited to the dinner, she’d told the visiting alumni association official that I was the club’s vice president, a title which stuck.) So that even though Pam was the classiest woman I met in my first 10 years in France, it was not a class that excluded hapless Harrigans like me. During the evening I must have made at least one faux pas, besides the jacket-less way I was dressed. I remember only that the waiter sniffed when I automatically asked for a noisette, the poor man’s café creme, forgetting that I was not paying. “Oh, splurge a little and have a café creme!” said Pam. “Remember, it’s on Old Nassau.” 20 years after leaving in disgrace, I’d finally been admitted to the club.