Every writer hopes to see his book reviewed in The New York Times. The grand slam is to be reviewed twice, both daily and Sunday. On last Thursday, Janet Maslin reviewed "Life Itself" and it was the best review I could possibly hope for. On Sunday, Maureen Dowd reviewed it in the NYTimes Book Review. Another positive review--indeed, for Dowd, positively generous. ("A captivating, movable feast.") But near the top it contained a zinger. "Ebert is a first-rate second-rate memoirist," she wrote. I cringed, and then I smiled. If there was ever an example of snark that I fully deserved, it was this one. First of all, it is fair enough. If Nabokov's Speak, Memory is an example of the first-rate memoir, then the bar has been set pretty high.
But Dowd, who knows how to line up her ducks in a row, had established a context. "On his first day of classes, he took a shine to Daniel Curley, a corduroy-clad novelist teaching English 101," she writes, quoting me: "He would become my mentor and the friend of a lifetime."
"Still, the overachieving undergraduate...couldn't resist," she writes. Curley had lectured about the "first-rate second-rate writer," an author like John O'Hara or Sinclair Lewis... So when the smart-aleck Ebert reviewed a new Curley novel for The Daily Illini, he skewered his favorite professor as a "first-rate second-rate writer."
"How could I have been so cruel to a man who had been so kind?" Ebert wonders.
Indeed I did wonder. And in doing that, I provided Dowd with a perfect occasion to employ Curley's line yet once again. I confess I felt admiration for her. I would have done it myself. No critic easily resists such an opportunity staring him in the face. And my use of the line was far more unkind than Dowd's.
As I write in the book, I must have been insufferable to my teachers at times. One professor asked me to leave his classroom after I claimed I could write a better short story than Eudora Welty. I was allowed to return, much chastened, on the Monday. In 1964, when I absolutely had to get three As in summer school to be admitted to the graduate program in English, I had some dust-ups with a fiery professor named Richard Wasson. It was Curley, encountering me on the steps of the University Lbrary, who advised me to cool it with Wasson and keep my focus. That would have been after my unforgivable review appeared in The Daily Illini.
My father died in September 1960, around the time I first took one of Dan Curley's classes. It doesn't require Freud to understand that he became a father figure. I continued by taking every single class he taught, even including short story writing--which, despite my opinion of Eudora Welty, I was manifestly unqualified for. I took so many Curley classes I sometimes joked, "I'm majoring in Dan Curley."
In some ways I'm still in his classroom. He more than anyone else has guided my lifetime of reading. He never lectured or issued dictums or was doctrinaire. He taught by suggestion or indirection. He would mention something he was reading, a book invariably in his backpack. In London one year we sat in a pub and I confessed I still hadn't made a good start with Dickens. He nodded in his judicious way. "He will wait for you," he said. He observed that Anthony Trollope had fallen out of favor after his autobiography unwisely revealed that he wrote 15 minutes every day, by a stop-watch, and revealed all the income he made from his books.
"But during the Second World War," Curley said, "the British came hurrying back to Trollope. He evoked for them an earlier, pastoral Britain that they escaped to during the Blitz. Many of them wrote about going down into air raid shelters with a Trollope."
It was Curley who taught me London. We walked the canal pathways, went to the chapter house at Westminster Abbey, crossed Hampstead Heath, prowled Old Highgate Cemetery, walked beside the river from Cambridge to Grantchester, visited Sir John Soane's house, and Dr. Johnson's. Eventually we co-authored "The Perfect London Walk." He continued teaching at Illinois, editing Ascent, a respected literary quarterly. In 1988 in Florida, after an annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, he was struck by a car while crossing a street, and was killed instantly. He was one of the fittest men and most tireless walkers I ever knew. He should have lived for years.
We never spoke about my review of his novel, "A Stone Man, Yes." I didn't have the nerve, and he just let it rest. In a way, getting an advance for "The Perfect London Walk" and using it to finance our trip to immortalize "Curley's Walk" was a form of amends. We stayed in close touch after school. He was a kindred spirit. Recently I re-read Henry James' "The Ambassadors" in his footsteps.
I have regretted writing that review ever since it appeared. I was so full of myself. I was so heedless of his feelings. I was so hungry to make an impact. Who was I impressing? A thousand undergraduates?
When Dowd allowed the line to coil back and bite me, I actually enjoyed the moment. What I was feeling was what Dan must have felt many times more intensely. "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."
Some years ago I met a talented young columnist at the Daily Illini. I liked his work, kept in touch with him, helped him where I could. He started to make a name for himself as a blogger and writer. One day, for no particular reason, he wrote a particularly mean-spirited blog entry about me. As nearly as I could tell, he disapproved not merely of my writing but of my existence. This didn't hurt me so much as puzzle me. Why would he do that?
His reputation was based at that time on him being a clever wise-ass with a rapier pen. I was one of his targets. Like many writers and critics on the web, he wanted to be smarter, funnier and more merciless than anyone else. He was auditioning for that Algonquin Round Table in the Cloud. Although there are a number of writers who dislike me (Brietbart's Big Hollywood is a good place to look), they usually have defensible reasons (my politics). That's fair. This former friend disliked me just for the exercise.
A year or two later, he was kind enough to write another column regretting his first one. That made me feel good. He was growing older and wiser. Why did I write that? he asked. As I had.
I think perhaps my review of Dan Curley's novel influenced my writing in the same way his guidance influenced my reading. I have written many negative, snarky, movie reviews, some angry, some funny. But I try not to be hurtful to individuals unless they're really asking for it. The work, but not the person. I never criticize someone's physical appearance. An actor has to be on display to make a living. We cannot help the way we look. Critics who mock someone's appearance are unkind; often they're trying to draw attention to themselves. There is a whole genre of web sites that mock people for a living. I don't want any part of it.
Maureen Dowd knew what she was doing. In quoting my own line against me, she wrote: "Karma's a Fury." Yes it is. Karma, the dictionary informs me, "refers to the sum of a person's actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences." Yes it does.
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