From: Alison Leslie Gold, New York City
To: Dan Gunn
26th March 2020
Before contemplating this letter to you, I thumbed through the collected Longplayer letters and found each to be embedded with precious materials: a diamond, a scapolite crystal or slivers of opaque jasper. Each letter gave me an element from which I could form a constellation of sorts: Brian Eno’s comments on Fukushima; Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s skin in the game; Steven Brand’s cautionary vigilance; Esther Dyson’s ‘Way to Wellville’; Carne Ross’s reformations; John Burnside’s sacrifices; Manuel Arriaga’s engineering prospective; Ian Sinclair’s ‘externalism resides in sleep’; Alan Moore’s news that ‘Clare’s asylum mate [was] Lucia Joyce 1’; Stewart Lee’s stay down ‘the hall from the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots’ and Howard Gelb’s ‘attempts to connect a few dots’ during his visit with Helle Goldman in dreamy Tromsø, Norway. A hardy, edifying collection.
Helle’s letter arrived during the Trump impeachment trial/non-trial as it ground its knee into my chest. (An opera buffa that made one want to rip one’s hair out). I was already gasping when Helle’s letter blew in. Helle happens to be a long-playing (spanning almost fifty years) element in my life who made her first deposit into my memory bank at (as she mentioned in her letter) age five (having long skinny legs like a colt) when both of our families lived on the poetic Isle of Hydra on the Aegean Sea. Helle and my son (also with skinny legs and tussled blond hair) were married there in a short ceremony officiated by Helle’s handsome, bearded father (Robert). Afterwards, Helle’s three-year-old sister (seraphic Johanne, also blond, who had kissable, plump legs) helped birth their babies (newborn kittens) by removing them one by one from under Helle’s tee shirt. As a happy extended family, we fed these grand-child-kittens droplets of NoyNoy 2 after which squeaks and chirrups were heard. Helle and I (and family) have been friends ever since, have remained in close touch through each and every interesting phase of her travels and development.
By way of anecdotal characterization, I’ll relate an incident I fondly recall: one time (by then in their teens) Helle’s husband and I arrived for a visit to the Goldman home which was, at that point, in New England. Shortly after our arrival, Helle asked me, “Would you like to see my boa constrictor?”
Of course I didn’t but – wanting to be in her good book, wanting to seem cool, calm and collected which I was feeling less and less in those days – I replied, “Love to!”
Proudly she marched me into her room (laboratory? zoo?) to behold the large glass tank in which coiled an enormous snake with an arrow-shaped head. The snake was colored drab brown, grey, cream and had black saddle shapes up and down its body. I probably mouthed a few phatic phrases like – “Wow!” and “Quite something!” – hoping to project enthusiasm, which, of course, I lacked entirely. Helle eagerly enquired, “Would you like to hold it?”
The truth was that I didn’t, but, once again, to save face I brazenly replied, “Sure!”
Pleased to share her impressive pet, she instructed me (in a gravelly voice) to sit down on the chair. After I had, she hoisted the bulky snake out of the tank with both hands and plopped it onto my lap. It weighed a ton. I was (as my father would say) shitting bricks. Just then Helle’s sublime Danish mother (my great friend Rie) called out, “Helle!!”
Promising she’d return, Helle left the room; left me sitting for an eternity with the dead weight of her boa constrictor upon my person, who, yes, was cold to the touch. She later left us (me and the snake) for a myriad of other pastures including the Arctic Circle, Africa, academia, marriage, motherhood and, yes, even modeling. She eventually veered from snakes to furry African creatures, especially a spotted cat-like Servaline Genet with a long tail. As it happened, Helle and helpers were the very first in the world to actually photograph (by use of a camera trap) this small, comely animal.
My first acquaintance with the concept of the long-playing happened in childhood (1948, at age 3) when I encountered (with dismay) a 33 1/3 or ‘long playing’ or ‘long play’ or ‘LP’ phonograph record. A sample of this innovation was brought home (to 214th Street) by my father who’d splurged at Colony Records (on Broadway and 49th Street) after teaching his morning classes at CCNY in Harlem. Daddy probably slipped his purchase under his arm along with his (already consumed) NY Times during the hour-and-a-half journey home by subway and public bus. This home was a brick house with two stories, two bedrooms (parents in one, three children in the second). It included a back yard and a side yard bordered by a buxus hedge. A hammock hung between two apple trees on which actual apples grew. This house was the very first private home anyone in my large extended family of first generation Americans had ever owned. Also its first privately owned fruit-bearing trees.
The actual first LPs manufactured were three: Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor conducted by Bruno Walter, The Voice of Frank Sinatra and Nursery Songs by Gene Kelly. Ours, recorded soon afterwards, was an original cast recording of Rogers and Hammerstein’s spine-tingling Broadway musical Oklahoma! This flat, circular (twelve-inch diameter) disc (made from something weightless called vinyl plastic) drenched our entire family with its words and music for a lengthy fifteen minutes on each side. This happened to be five times longer than any previous phonograph record ever heard before. That enchanting score kissed my three year-old ears about a thousand times so that even seventy plus years later, I can recall every word to every song, like
“… Oh what a beautiful morning,
Oh what a beautiful day,
I’ve got a wonderful feeling,
Everything’s going my way.”3
These words, this musical, encapsulated the post-war promise that everything was and would go my/our way; would be okay; that all of our lives would be served with a side order of beauty and wonder. This promise was meant to be a birthright bequeathed to all children as a postscript to a cataclysmic world war that had recently concluded. (I was born two months after V-E Day and three weeks before Hiroshima in 1945). My whole family were kept entertained by the music from that LP and subsequent others, especially (iconic) Broadway musicals that followed, and there were many great ones during that window of time.
I was fortunate to have arrived on earth with an oceanic storage capacity for memory – sensory, short-term, long-term. Given time for memory marination, one plus one quickly equaled three or more “… for over strong was the command to hold fast to each smallest particle of time, to the smallest particle of every circumstance, and to embody all of them in memory as if they could be preserved in memory through all deaths for all times.” 4 And so I have: even as soft chitin-winged flies land and stick in my ointment as I approach an age when a thought doesn’t always last from one room to the next. (At such moment I must ask myself, why am I here? Or, what was that cure for cancer I just thought up?)
As an ‘everything going my way’ girl child, I became intimately at one with my back and side yards, my street, my neighborhood; then with Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island. At school I studied a larger world on a brightly colored map on which Yugoslavia was colored pink, Rhodesia, brown, East Germany, egg-yolk yellow. I don’t recall the colors used for the U.S.S.R. or the Belgian Congo or Ceylon or Czechoslovakia or Abyssinia or Tibet but could have pointed out all if asked to do so. I naturally assumed the map along with its various colors would be frozen in time but this proved not to be true. One by one, all of the above were altered while the likes of South Sudan, Czechia, Kosovo, Slovakia, Serbia, Montenegro, Republic of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eritrea, Armenia, Yemen, East Timor, Palau, among others, were added. (An example of the head-scratching this caused: my illiterate maternal grandmother left Austria-Hungary in 1906 at age ten for America where she became a baker. A few decades later the place of birth she left behind became part of Czechoslovakia and, after that, part of Czech Republic when Slovakia and Czecho parted company. Thus, I grew up believing I had three Russian-born grandparents and one Austrian-born grandparent, until I was forced to rewrite my own roots from Russian/Austrian to Russian/Czech.
Nonetheless, long-playing immutability does exist. Take (at four days and fifteen hours) Wagner’s “Ring”. Take a job that lasts more than 1,000 hours and has no end date. Take trees, spiders, and cows: trees never fail to remember to bud after winter (some even unfailingly turning their leaves upside down to keep the tops from getting wet); some spiders dismantle their webs before a heavy rain; before that same rain, cows cluster together and lie on the ground. Tried and true.
Oddly, Dan, (or perhaps it’s not odd), our friendship began on Hydra, Greece just as Helle’s had. I think it was in late winter, the early 90s, when I arrived on the island with a Czech friend (Olga) who wore long, colorful gypsy skirts and cooked everything with fistfuls of garlic, even breakfast. (Later you complained about the strong odor of garlic floating your way first thing in the morning). After a week or so Olga left the island and I stayed on to continue work on a new book. The owner of the villa behind mine (a hard-drinking friend) had asked me to look in on her renter who she explained was an old professor from Paris on sabbatical. She was a bit worried, since the professor sounded rather frail when they spoke on the telephone. Also, Hydra in winter was no place for a light-weight. When I ‘looked in’ I encountered a slim, sexy, mustached Scotsman – very funny, bright, immediately engaging – at work on a novel. Indeed, you were a professor on sabbatical though I can’t imagine why my neighbor thought you were old since you were in your early forties at the time. Perhaps because of your extraordinarily polite, very correct, use of language. My neighbor friend – who grew up on a Nebraska farm and had never been to Europe before visiting Hydra – wasn’t used to European politeness or formality, having also on first visiting brought American stamps with which to send postcards.
Very soon, you might recall, I invited you for an afternoon swim in order to show you some spots only known to insiders, like the birth canal that took one from rocks to the sea. Shortly after that, after a long work day, you and I walked into the port and had dinner together. Afterwards we picked up an ice cream on a stick. It seemed that you were one of the editors beginning the compilation (eventually in four volumes) of Samuel Beckett’s letters for Oxford University Press 5 I discovered you were, like me, also an author of fiction and nonfiction. We both had, in fact, published novels with the same Scottish publisher.
You had with you DVDs of every Beckett play ever performed. Thus began an almost perfect interlude (perhaps two or three months long) during which you and I would do individual work as we pleased, then, at some point, (assuming both were in the mood), we’d swim and/or have a meal nearby beside the dry river bed or at the port after which we’d walk the three-quarters of a mile or so back in the dark using a small torch for light (sometimes on the sea road, sometimes on the back road called Donkey Shit Lane). Back at my place, we’d sit on ramshackle chairs in my outside terrace/courtyard under the gleaming (occasionally even shooting) stars. As we consumed ice creams, we’d view one or another production of a play by Samuel Beckett on your computer screen. These wonders included Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Not I, a sample of which follows: Mouth speaks: … gradually … all went out … all that early April morning light … and she found herself in the … what? … who? … no! … she! … (pause) … she found herself in the dark … and if not exactly … insentient … insentient … for she could still hear the buzzing … so-called … in the ears … and a ray of light came and went …
Left with licked-clean wood ice cream sticks (touch wood) in an otherwise empty hand and claw marks from Beckett’s lancet-like language on our psyches, you’d walk up the eight or so steps to your spiti 6 while I, (closing my two-hundred year-old falling down gate whose lock didn’t always catch) would climb the metal stairway steps to my bed. With windows opened wide, the sound of goat bells and small owls would lull me to sleep or not. Our routine got repeated the following day, and the next. Though routine it never felt rote, never lost its nightly vividness. This sojourn remains, for me, perfect in every way.
Your friendship, and others have compounded – interest on interest – into a king’s ransom, has made me wealthy. I wonder if, at this point in life, this accrued fortune can be used as future collateral? If need be, on dark days, I might need to make withdrawals. Maybe even today, perhaps, as this outbreak of novel COVID-19 has just now transmuted into an epidemic. Hence, déjà vu with the long ago (1959) Stanley Kramer film “On the Beach” (based on Nevil Chute’s novel). This film was set in futuristic (1963) Australia post world-wide nuclear war. In it, valiant Ava Gardiner, Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire (sorry to those under age sixty who go blank at the mention of these names) live and love and find inner peace while waiting for the irreparable wind to blow the lethal radiation their way. At this very moment ill winds are gusting willy-nilly. It’s beginning to seem as if I may have to cancel the trip to Paris to visit you and your family in ten days. And what about the sojourn on the beautiful Isle of Wight, then twelve days on Cunard’s Queen Victoria to Madeira, I’d also planned? Who knows.
While the virus stalks, I’ve discovered that I’ve been washing my hands incorrectly for seventy-four years. No kidding. How was I to know I needed to lather soap for twenty, not five or fifteen, seconds, to rub my palms together, rub the backs of hands, interlink my fingers, not forgetting my thumbs. These detailed instructions even include singing an entire song while hand-washing, a long like Queen’s We will, we will rock you. Of course I probably should have learned all this in kindergarten. But then again, maybe I did?
And now: the epidemic is a pandemic.
And now: it’s a national emergency.
Can’t help wondering: Am I on the wrong train and did the kids eat the tickets? Now, more than ever, I would like to believe that a rose is still red in the dark 7. I’ll sign off with Annie Lennox singing Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” so do listen. Perhaps Annie’s rendition is a bit melancholic. In that case, try Nina Simone’s “There’s A New World Coming” and I’ll bid you au revoir.
PS: Have just now cancelled all upcoming travels. The downside: I won’t see you, Dan. The upside: I’ve more time to listen to Jem Finer’s thousand-year-long-composition so that, like the tide, it can lift my boat.
Alison Leslie Gold was born in Brooklyn two months after the end of World War II. A grand-daughter of Russian and Austrian immigrants, ALG has been both saint and sinner, bon vivant and author, mother, boon companion and hermit.
Dan Gunn is a novelist, editor, and translator, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the American University of Paris, and Director of AUP’s Center for Writers and Translators.