The Reading Life: But Most People Are The Same


My dad once pointed out an inconsequential part of Charade, the Stanley Donen film. It’s a piece of interstitial dialogue between two characters we never see. George Kennedy, with a hook for a hand, has ransacked Audrey Hepburn’s Parisian hotel room, and Cary Grant goes out the window to find him. Grant passes a neighboring room’s window, and a woman screams.

“Alastair!” she says in an exaggerated English accent.

“What is it now, Pamela,” Alastair says, exasperated.

“It happened again!” Pamela says, leaning on the “gain.” “Another strange man peered in the window at me, and then went away!”

“Bad luck, Pamela” is Alastair’s only response.

My dad pointed this out because it’s funny for some reason, but also because Alastair and Pamela, although unseen, are cartoony Englishness personified. My dad is English. Sometimes I will send him something Zadie Smith has written in her “Oh England My Lionheart” vein, and he’ll authoritatively contradict her, and I find the whole thing very satisfying, like filing a nail. At this point though, he has lived in California for most of his life, a life larger than his citizenship, and while we seriously discuss English culture in a broader sense—politics, art, architecture, food, etc.—we also spend a lot of time not doing that and saying things in exaggerated accents instead, including the sorts of accents that Alastair and Pamela have. I would pathologize this, but I won’t, because it’s fun.

We’ve done this since I was very little. What made me laugh when I was younger was the noise of the accent, not its connotations with class or anything else so serious. The rhythms of the Monty Python battleax and the shrill call of Prunella Scales were on the same level of nursery rhymes and sing-alongs. But because these sounds have been displaced and were wedged into my American childhood, certain ways of speaking seem to come from a place they might not come from at all. They come, basically, from nowhere beyond the family car or our couch. They are disembodied voices, without the doom of mythology.

On my way to work the other day, I remembered a letter from Ted Hughes to his son Nicholas. When I had a free moment, I reread it. Hughes compliments his son on his confidence, noting that Nicholas might not feel so strong but “that’s how it looks to the rest of us, who simply look on in envy.” At first, I saw this cynically: Hughes using rhetoric to make his son feel better. But I relaxed. A life is larger than that: I imagined that this was not a performance, or, rather, that it was, but not in the sense that excludes honesty. And honestly, my dad has done this before, saying “us” when he means him or only a few others. It always makes me feel better. It distances the feeling while amplifying it. It’s a smaller, more personal version of theatre. I can’t generalize, but maybe this is particularly English, a minor “royal we” situation.

Suddenly, uncomfortably, I liked Ted Hughes.

The Hughes I am comfortable disliking still appears, but early in his letter. He passes blunt judgment on Nicholas’s mother, Sylvia Plath, saying he and Plath lost the chance to learn over time that their relationship couldn’t work if they isolated themselves, living together “inside a damart sock.” “Foolish of her, and foolish of me to encourage her to think her laws were reasonable,” he says.

I don’t read to find people I like. Liking someone is maybe your first but never your whole thought. I reread The Bell Jar over Christmas and The Silent Woman over a few nights in January when I couldn’t sleep, so I have a fresh preference for other people’s versions of Ted Hughes. That’s all you have, really, when you don’t have someone in their own words. You get hearsay but not a full picture of the person’s life, and it’s frankly a relief. You get distance with the illusion of understanding. It’s so much easier than someone’s version of himself.

Hughes’s version of himself is charming. He preaches an irresistible anti-narcissism in this letter. “Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat,” he says at one point. “But most people are the same,” he says at another. “Live as though all your ancestors were living again through you,” he concludes. He’s an aggressive pontificator. Realize, he is saying, how you sound to other people, how other people sound to you. The answer is: we all sound the same. We all are children.

Hughes also tells his son that respect for others is measured “by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate.” This makes his digression about Plath sadder to me. Perhaps this letter is a father telling his son how far his sympathies go, what those sympathies are made of. Respect is hard, and self-respect is harder still, and those that die too soon don’t get the benefit of making peace with their younger selves, taking the narrative as it was and paring it down, seeing what was inconsequential.

“The only calibration that counts,” Hughes says, “is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated.” How much, in other words, they give. “Nothing else really counts at all.”

One time my father and I were in a coffee shop. I was seventeen years old. He said to me, if you meet someone at this level (he indicated with his hand a level close to our table’s surface), and they meet you at this level (he raised his hand slightly higher above), then that tells you something good. If you then meet them at this level (his hand went higher), and they stay with you, then that tells you something even better.

He said this was something his mother had told him. These are the pleasurable kinds of echoes, and they appear often, enough to make you feel an appropriate gratitude as you hear them another time, enough to make you wonder if they’ll ever lose their comfort.

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