The pandemic continues gnawing at the flesh of our society. In recent weeks it’s claimed a number of people who had little in common apart from being (for me, First-Person Narrator of this piece) adults and guides, people I was close to in the generation above mine. Just as when you lose your parents (Oscar Wilde reference please, to lighten the tone!*), the disappearance of these people makes it seem that part of the fence holding you back from the cliff’s edge has collapsed. I mentioned Hillis Miller the other day; now for two more I knew much better.
Peter Esty was my English teacher in my first year at Deerfield. I must have been a cranky subject. Mouth full of provincial accent, obsessive with a few literary references bigger than my britches (Dante, Milton, Yeats, Faulkner), ready to argue with, or rather monologue at, all and sundry, I needed taking down a peg. And Peter did that with such humor and grace that I didn’t notice it happening. My papers (typed; teachers had complained about my handwriting and I liked taking on the air of a pro) on Macbeth, Portrait of a Lady, and Ambrose Bierce stories came back with marginal notes that were masterpieces of the art of deflection–of deflecting a kid who was taking himself too seriously. A joke here, a ?! there, a “did you notice…” in another place, were Peter’s way of reminding me to take the time to listen to what the author and the characters had to say, as we should all listen to what other people have to say and, if we can, give them back something they weren’t expecting and possibly didn’t deserve. Unlike many in the teaching profession, Peter had spent ten years outside in the fresh air, working for Proctor & Gamble, and came back to the classroom with the certainty that that is where he wanted to be. He liked kids and he liked books. When I showed him my poems and stories, he pretended to appreciate them as a book-liker but I think he mainly saw them as a piece of the development of a kid he was determined to like. This was charitable of him in a way I couldn’t have seen rightly then.
I was determined not to get along with people (already something of a habit with me) and Peter’s diplomacy was essential to my having a successful second year, when I and a dozen other boys occupied the dorm part of a house with the Esty family on the ground floor. And when I had the lucky break of getting accepted to School Year Abroad (thus avoiding the third year of Deerfield), a further piece of luck was that the Estys were going too, Peter having been chosen as that year’s English teacher for the thirty or so American kids on the voyage. I remember hanging out in Normandy, poking around the Paris flea markets, and walking over the Cathar strongholds in the south, with Peter and various of his brood. Being in France was good for me. I had a chance to start over again. The things that made me hard to get along with didn’t matter so much there, or could be put down to general cultural difference. And French kids didn’t mind arguing about poetry and ethics and culture, however bizarre my starting assumptions must have seemed to them. I decided to petition to skip senior year, and I suspect Peter had a role in my petition being granted. It probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to try to fit me back in the old bottle for a year anyway, after being in France. Forty years of subsequent experience have given me some insight into the subtle, behind-the-scenes ways capable adults can influence a kid’s path.
Xavier was one of the people I got to know that year in France (it was 1976-77, for the paleontologists in the audience). The Desgrées du Loû family had an admirable tradition of hospitality, shown for example by hiding an American parachutist who’d landed on somebody’s potato field a few months before D-Day. Or there was the Polish teenager, Stachek, whose arm had been shot off in a battle, and who somehow found himself in rural Brittany and stayed with them for the duration of the war. As their numerous children grew up and moved away (most often to Paris, as Bretons must do) François and Anne Desgrées du Loû invited students into the empty bedrooms, which is how I, a fumbling, easily embarrassed stranger who understood three words out of ten of what was being said, came to be part of their family dinners. My first night there, a long and passionate discussion took place about who was greater, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. I couldn’t really join in but I knew these were the people for me.
Tynane (Anne-Françoise), the eldest daughter, lived around the corner with her husband, Xavier, and their three small children. Xavier had been working for Citroën and was just about to strike out on his own as a designer of electricity-generating windmills. His Aéroturbine was about the size and shape of a well-fed dolphin with a propeller on its nose and swiveled at the top of a steel stanchion about as long as a telephone pole. It could be swung down for repairs and was meant to be self-contained. It was ahead of its time and, I believe, rubbed the French electricity-generating monopoly the wrong way. The drawings for it were elegant, a mode of persuasion in their own right. Xavier traveled in France and abroad trying to get his invention installed. I thought I had found an ideal location, a hilltop medical center in Haiti without, at the time, a connection to the national grid. For various insurmountable reasons that installation never came to pass, but I think Xavier would have loved the Haitians, with their matter-of-fact piety, their creative exuberance, their love of rhetorical precision.
For Xavier was an engineer with an artist’s eye. He loved Italy for the way industrial objects there were never allowed to be ugly, as if ugliness would proclaim their adherence to mere function: it cost nothing more to make a Ducati Mach 1 or an Olivetti typewriter elegant, so why not do it? Design should never punish people for buying at the bottom of the scale, if they had to. His shed was full of machines in various stages of assembly and disassembly, including a couple of Citroën “spacecraft” cars, the DS and ID models that Roland Barthes commented on disparagingly for their exquisitely organic-seeming smoothness. For Xavier they represented a bygone era of French design, when designers weren’t afraid to defy the consensus and test out new solutions (like the DS’s central hydraulic system that replaced springs and shocks). He felt himself, I think, increasingly locked out of the mainstream of engineering and industrial production as economies of scale came to dominate all design choices. The Aéroturbine was his struggle to prove schlocky averageness wrong.
With Bob Lange, Bryan Simmons and other friends, I experienced a hospitality like no other among these people. Tynane, her parents, and many members of the family have been the readers I think about when I write, in whatever language (even Chinese), and the friends I seek out on the slightest pretext. They are good to be with, to talk with, to think with. Xavier’s hospitality extended to loaning me his beautiful red Olivetti manual typewriter in the summer of 1981 when I was banging out the first drafts of what became The Ethnography of Rhythm. I stupidly tried to clean it with “white spirit” (i.e., turpentine; if it had been labelled in English I would have known better than to use it) and marred the paint. This did not deter Xavier, a few months later, from contributing his welding talents to the fashioning of a long-distance touring bike out of a second-hand maybe-Peugeot. I needed a baggage rack and couldn’t find a solid enough one in the stores. Xavier, the champion bricoleur, liberated some steel tubing from a harvester, I think, and spot-welded it onto the seat stays. It lasted me all the way to Athens.
Courtly, inflexible on certain things, he saw himself in the role of Cyrano, that nostalgic swashbuckler. Tynane (on whom more pages must and shall be written) saved him from Engineer’s Disease as well as from the Antimodernism so well described by Antoine Compagnon. Tynane’s sense of faith and morals was more accommodating, less black-and-white, and her trust in the people she loved preserved their circle of international friends from sectarianism. For example, it was impossible for many years for Xavier to accept the existence of Bryan and Ralph as a couple, and I praise Bryan for never giving up. Tynane and Xavier enlarged the world of us foreigners with their unquestioning welcome, and I’d like to think that we made their world a little bigger too, kept them from sliding into Vieille-France nostalgia and pre-Vatican-II rigor.
At any rate, these are some of the people who educated me, or made me the sort of person who can be educated. Praise to them. And deep curses on Covid, the taker-away of good things.
- Lady Bracknell: “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The Importance of Being Earnest, act I.