Monday, February 6, 2012

Road to Damascus

There's something to be said for being unemployed. ("Unemployed" being used here both despondently and self-deprecatingly as someone who willingly gave up her acceptable job to pursue happiness on more familiar shores. "Between jobs," on the other hand, is the euphemism used by the laid-off. Also, being a substitute at an independent bookstore does not count as proper employment.) I have been reading a lot. I have been reading so much that I actually feel busy, like a liberal arts college student might. It's great. My only complaint is the lack of funds. Also the fear, anxiety, and frustration at not finding work that offers health insurance. Obviously things are much better now than they were in Texas. No regrets. At least, no point now in having regrets. There are signs of land in the distant horizon, I think.

Now that I have the time, I've been reading things like the "Paris Review" and "Granta," which made for good antidotes while I was slogging through "The Girl Who Played with Fire". Finish the chapter on Lisbeth Salander's shopping spree at Ikea? Read an interview with Allan Hollinghurst in the "Paris Review" as a kind of reward. This is how I came across a piece by Claire Messud in "Granta 118". Messud being a novelist, I assumed at first that I was reading fiction. "The Road to Damascus" is, among other things, a beautiful piece about the life and death of the narrator's father, a Frenchman who grew up, in part, in Beirut. Four pages into the piece, I read this: "[A]s a businessman, he amassed, over fifty years, a scholar's collection of books on Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians, the Turks, the Middle East more broadly. Upon his death he left behind hundreds of volumes, although however many of them he read I cannot say. He left, that is, substantial traces of the life unlived, of the internal life, which we all know is both hard to discern and the only one that matters." I underlined this section because I was thinking of our friend James Wood, and hoping he would maybe come across this piece and feel shamed by the succinctness and generosity of Messud's words. Then, less than a second later, I thought "Shit. Messud's father fits Wood's description of his father-in-law, except, you know, that she writes about her father respectfully and affectionately, while Wood wrote about a man who clearly (and probably rightly) made him feel like a small man in big, "New Yorker" fiction critic, shoes. So I did what James Wood does every Sunday morning, sitting in his bath robe and flannel underwear in his office with the door locked, that is, furiously Googling himself. Turns out, James Wood is married to Claire Messud. The man Wood belittles is the father Messud (at least seems to) venerate.

I finished the piece, the father passes away. My email to Wood, which I wrote months ago by now, asking him to explain to me why he wrote and published that essay, goes still unanswered.


  1. I still resent you, for not letting me mock James Wood semi-publicly in your comments.

  2. Helen, you are a hoot. Thank you for at least two lines that made me laugh out loud.

  3. Thank you, Auntie Jane! I thought it was a hoot when you got my name wrong there.

  4. Yeah, there are accent marks. Hêlëne.