Literary Talk, by Leonard Michaels

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Literary Talk


About forty years ago, in a high-school English class, I learned that talking about literature, like talking about yourself, incurs some small dangers of self-revelation, even though literary talk is distanced by logic and standards of objectivity, and is controlled by good manners–a social activity of nice people.

My teacher’s name was McLean, a thin man with a narrow head and badly scarred tissue about the mouth which was obscured by his mustache. It looked British and military. The scar tissue was plain enough, despite the mustache, like crinkled wrapping paper with a pink sheen.

Listening to him, looking at his face, I heard his voice as crushed; softly crushed by the grief around his mouth and whatever caused it. He’d been in the air force. I supposed it happened during the war; though I couldn’t imagine how.

McLean usually wore an old brown tweed suit and a dull appropriate tie, and he had a gentle, formal manner. Whenever he made some little joke, he chuckled slightly, as though embarrassed, having gone too far, exceeding the propriety of the classroom. Telling jokes, I think, calls attention to your mouth; his for sure. On some days, as if sensitive to weather or nerves, the scar tissue looked raw, hot, incompletely healed.

Long before McLean’s class, I knew the strong effects of stories and poems, but, through him, I discovered you could talk about the effects as if they inhered in the stories and poems, just as his voice inhered in his face. When McLean read poetry aloud, his voice became vibrant and lyrical, and the air of the room was full of pleasure, feeling its way into me with my very breathing. Reading alone or being read to was always an anxious sort of happiness. I knew that I’d never recover from its effects, since they only deepened my need for more.

One afternoon, discussing The Winter’s Tale, McLean came to a passage I didn’t like. I worried if it might be deeply good Shakespearean stuff, beyond me to know how good. In the passage, Paulina and Dion debate whether or not King Leontes should remarry. Years have passed since Leontes practically murdered the former queen, Hermione. Paulina says to Dion, “You are one of those/ Would have him wed again.” Dion then makes a complicated reply:

If you would not so,
You pity not the state nor the remembrance
of his most sovereign name, consider little
What dangers, by his highness fail of issue,
May drop upon the kingdom and devour
Incertain lookers on. What were more holy
Than to rejoice the former queen is well?
What holier than, for royalty’s repair,
For present comfort and for future good,
To bless the bed of majesty again
With a sweet fellow to’t!

McLean relished the little paradoxes. First, his “fail of issue/ May drop … ” That is, failing to drop–or produce–a child, drops problems on Leontes’s kingdom. Second, “to rejoice the former queen”–poor dead Hermione–“is well.”; The queen is dead, long live the queen. All in all, Dion’s speech has, the dead queen alive, blessing “the bed of majesty again,” in another woman’s body, which will make “a sweet fellow to’t.”

The last line, ending “to’t,” like bird belching rather than tweeting, struck me as disgusting, and the whole speech, conflating a real dead woman and an imagined living one, was very creepy. I raised my hand. McLean glanced at me. I said, “Necrophilia.”

McLean asked me to stay after class and then went on, enraptured by the moment when Hermione steps out of the stone statue of herself and back into the living world. Leontes, much older now than the long dead Hermione–their daughter being grown up and marriageable–can look forward to going to bed with Hermione again, making love to her. The prospect seemed ghoulish to me. Old Evil eating Innocence, as in a black vision of Goya. I wouldn’t accept the idea of her statue showing her as aged. I wouldn’t see it. I couldn’t.

After class, everyone but McLean and me left the room. I went up to his desk. He fooled with his papers, as if he didn’t notice me standing there, and I seemed to wait a long time. Of course he couldn’t simply turn to me and say what was on his mind. Too direct. Not his style. So he collected papers, ordered them, collecting himself, I suppose.

I was scared. I was always scared, but especially now. Not being a good student, I didn’t feel morally privileged to receive McLean’s attention–alone; this close. It was always hard for me even to raise my hand amid the pool of heads, then speak, then survive the pressure of McLean’s response, though he was gentle and careful, never making anyone feel impertinent or stupid. I’d raise my hand very rarely, and then I’d go deaf when McLean responded, and I’d sit nodding like a fool, understanding nothing, the blood so noisy in my head and my tie jumping to my heartbeat. Though barely perceptible, it could be seen.

Still looking at his papers, McLean said, “Some people make a practice of burying their dead quickly and getting on with life.” My people, presumably. I didn’t know why he said that, but I took the distinction without resentment. There was nothing pejorative in his tone. He was merely thinking out loud, unable to talk to me otherwise, perhaps too embarrassed by what he wanted to say, or else by his inability to say it. Then he said, “I was a ball-turret gunner,” and–I suddenly understood–he was telling me a story.

Ball-turret gunners, in the belly of a B-17, the most vulnerable part, were frequently killed. McLean said he would become terrified in action, and he’d spin and spin the turret, firing constantly, even if the German fighter planes were out of range. He gazed at me now, but his eyes weren’t engaging mine, perhaps seeing a vast and lethal sky, the earth whirling below in flames.

On his last mission, he said, he was ordered to replace the side gunner of another B-17 who had been killed. It was the worst mission of all. The B-17 was hit repeatedly and lost an engine and the landing gear was destroyed. It was going to crash land on its belly. The man in the ball turret had to get out quickly, but there was mangled steel above him. He couldn’t move; he was trapped. As they went down, McLean bent over him. He looked up at McLean. “His eyes were big,” said McLean. “Big.”

I felt myself plummet through the dark well of my body. McLean watched me, his eyes big, big, like the man in the ball turret. In that moment of utter horror, he whispered, “It’s a great play, The Winter’s Tale. Can you believe me?”

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