No doubt it will eventually. But right now I feel as tired and worn out as ever — only in part because of the aftereffect of the injection. It will clearly take a long time for many of us to shake off the gloom and heartache created by these seemingly endless months of psychological dislocation, economic hardship, rabid politics and grief over the deaths of close friends and family members. In my own case, the coronavirus pandemic has left my bookish temperament all the more wistful and retrospective: I regularly find myself lingering over memories of old times and absent friends.
Last week, for example, Norton Juster died. Although he and I weren’t close pals, we did enjoy a couple of uproarious meals together here in Washington. “The Phantom Tollbooth,” bursting with fantastic creatures and manic wordplay, is certainly the 20th century’s “Alice in Wonderland.” As it happens, though, Juster initially wrote me a thank-you note because I had praised one of his less well-known books, “Alberic the Wise.”
“More than many years ago,” it opens, “when fewer things had happened in the world and there was less to know, there lived a young man named Alberic who knew nothing at all.” One day this simple lad encounters a strange old wanderer who describes the world’s marvels: The traveler talks of kingdoms and empires and cities and royal courts and “great solitary castles that dug their fingers into the mountain passes and dared the world to pass,” and “as he spoke his eyes sparkled and his words were like maps of unknown lands.” The world “is full of wonders,” he tells Alberic. “It is everything I’ve said and even more.” And “remember it is all out there, just waiting.”
Juster’s story is, in part, about the contrast between youth and age. For, inevitably, the naive and restless Alberic decides to go out and see these fabulous places. He visits many cities, along the way apprenticing himself, always unsuccessfully, to stained-glass artisans, stone masons, leather workers, scribes, scholars and experts of all kinds. Gradually, having grown old, he comes to resemble the romantic wanderer who launched him on his pilgrimage. At this point Alberic begins to tell others of what he has experienced — and finds himself acclaimed a wise man, given expensive finery to wear and a palatial residence to live in. Nonetheless, he knows that he is anything but wise.
Juster’s story could be a parable about anyone’s life, but it doesn’t end there. Instead, the aged Alberic takes to the road again, dressed once more in his rags, having come to realize that “it is much better to look for what I may never find than to find what I do not really want.”
That’s a lesson I’ve been mulling over lately.
Memory works by association. So naturally the recollection of those dinners with Juster led me to recall other social occasions spent with admired writers no longer with us. At quiet moments I have brought back to flickering life — if only in my mind’s eye — the eminent classicist Bernard Knox, director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, who was my first Washington friend, spy novelist Charles McCarry and thriller writer Ross Thomas, with whom I dined one magical evening at the home of The Washington Post’s flamboyant architecture critic Sarah Booth Conroy, and the Balzacianly productive Joan Aiken, who talked with me about her exuberant Dido Twite novels as we lounged by a hotel swimming pool during the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts.
Even now, it amazes me to realize that I watched one of the Bush-Gore presidential debates sitting next to Norman Mailer, that John Updike read my memoir “An Open Book” and sent me a two-page letter about it, that Robert Silvers kept asking me to contribute to the New York Review of Books, and that the effortlessly urbane James Salter and I somehow shared meals in Washington, New York, Paris and London. Perhaps this all sounds boastful, but I was always thrilled to be in their company, like a small boy in the presence of giants. I sometimes shake my head in disbelief that Sir Harold Acton — the dedicatee of Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall”— would correspond with me or that Angela Carter and I could chat on the phone like teenagers. To patrician Gore Vidal, I became Comrade Dirda, and to this day I regret passing up a repeated invitation to visit him in Italy.
Most of all, however, I miss two literary friends: The multitalented, sensitive and prickly Thomas M. Disch, who committed suicide on July 4, 2008, and Alice K. Turner, the longtime fiction editor of Playboy, who died suddenly in 2015. Both were dauntingly smart, Tom so much so that it could be frightening, while Alice knew more about how storytelling works than anyone I’ve ever known. I would visit them both whenever I got to Manhattan and regularly stayed in the guest room of Alice’s huge SoHo apartment.
Nowadays, I smile whenever I think back to Tom making me toast from the actual inspiration for his children’s classic, “The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances,” or whenever I recall Alice’s scandalous stories about noted writers and publishers. In my memory, Alice is always ensconced in her sunny living room, sipping a drink and reading one novel after another, while Tom, in his aerie high above Union Square, is still turning out provocative science fiction, poems, essays, horror novels and diatribes. As Yeats once wrote, “Say my glory was I had such friends.”
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.