Search for ‘Christine Smallwood’ (2 articles found)

‘Considerable variety’

My favorite story in [Alfred Döblin’s] Bright Magic is “The Other Man.” It begins when a Boston gynecologist named Dr. Converdon hires a blond secretary named Mery, who has “beautiful braids.” He sleeps with her and discovers, to his dismay, that she is a virgin. Converdon’s behavior becomes erratic and brutal. He forces Mery to dance in a cabaret so that other men can ogle her; Mery enjoys the performance, but he doesn’t allow her to do it again — instead, he marries her. Shortly thereafter, Converdon receives a letter from an acrobat named Wheatstren, declaring his love for Mery and advising Converdon to save everyone a lot of hassle by killing himself. After considering the matter, Converdon consents. Wheatstren tires of Mery and pimps her out at the racecourse and the theater. This is the last line: “She, however, praised him at every turn, because he offered her the greatest thing that there is on earth: considerable variety.” It’s a love story.

Döblin is a true master — a scientist and a mystic whose characters, battered by a senseless world, cling to what today we would call existence or integrity but what he would have called the soul. They are alternately crude and fragile, suckers and saints. They hope and dream in excess of reason but are tethered to solid ground. In the very funny “Traffic with the Beyond,” a society of spiritualists is duped by a murderer. The fable “Materialism,” written after the author’s conversion to Catholicism, tracks the havoc unleashed when nature, including bulls, the grass, and water, learns of the primacy of matter. “Everything we do is meaningless,” thinks the tiger. “How could I have been so blind. It’s chemical reactions and reflexes wherever you look. . . . I started a family and brought seven rascals into the world for this. It’s sobering. A waste of time.”

Bob Seger was thirty-one years old when he recorded “Night Moves,” which is about as old as I was when I heard it — I mean really heard it — for the first time. You have to be at least thirty to appreciate “Night Moves.”

We weren’t in love, oh no, far from it. . . . We were just young and restless and bored. “Night Moves” is about “grassers” — parties where Seger and his friends would park their cars and put the headlights on and dance to records before (according to the song, anyway) retiring to the back seat or the trusty woods, where they devoted themselves to working on mysteries without any clues. The song is about nostalgia — Seger was as far away from 1962 as we are from the year 2000 — but the weird thing about nostalgia is that it can make you nostalgic for experiences you never had. Objects in the rearview are more precious than they appeared, especially to those teenage virgins who never did anything in the woods but hike. Ain’t it funny how you remember?

The best coming-of-age stories have a hole in the middle. They pretend to be about knowledge, but they are usually about grasping, long after it could be of any use, one’s irretrievable ignorance. Felt the lightning / And we waited on the thunder / Waited on the thunder — that’s when Seger wakes from his reverie, to the sound of thunder in 1976. It took fourteen years for it to find its way to him.

In perhaps the most perfect coming-of-age story, Great Expectations, Pip finds out too late — which is to say, right on time — that he has misunderstood everything about his youth. The fondest memory of the protagonists of Sentimental Education is when, as boys, they ran out of a brothel; their best time was something they didn’t do. Robert Zemeckis had the same idea, in Back to the Future. When Marty McFly gives his parents a better love story and changes his whole childhood, the price he pays is missing it. He can only come of age in an alternate reality. He skips the life that happened. We all do. That’s why we need so many stories about it.