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Monday, September 9, 2013

Proust and Pavlov in Princeton by John von Daler

                 You hope for Proust and you get Pavlov. I turned on the Billie Holiday cd and swimming back through the fog of memory I heard the sounds, saw the colors, felt the movements of Gatsby's cocktail party  - as if that fictive affair somehow had really happened in my life.
                 But this was not an elegant taste of a cookie followed by four volumes of great literature. Rather, it was a conditioned reflex evoked by Holiday via Gatsby, and by the awakening of the vision of the little crossroads outside of Princeton that I had visited so many times, the two-story, wooden house, the lawn, the voices at the table on the porch.
                A dog was there too, not out of Pavlov, but charging out of another house as I bicycled past on the way to the crossroads in the leaf-carpeted fall or in the budding green spring. I would give the mutt a lusty swipe with the side of my foot and swerve past and on up the quiet road toward the home of N and V.
                Billie singing in my living room in Copenhagen brought this back.
                They used to invite me a few times every year and I would close my books and bicycle out. They would be playing on the lawn, the four kids and N, the father. N would wave to me, put a loving tackle on one or two kids, and stride over to me, hand out-stretched, "John," he would get right down to things, "we've got stuff to talk about." And we would wander up toward the house, the four kids milling around us, and V, the mother and wife, would stick her pretty face with its great, broad smile, dark eyes and dark, wavy hair out of the screen door, and she would pull us all on invisible strings into the heart of her house.
                Inside the table would be set, would be laden with the good and tasty food, Americana with inspiration from abroad, that we would be eating later. But first it was Bourbon in the den, or on the lawn and the start of that wave of words that never stopped the whole evening. Billie would be singing on the record player, my glass would be full and then we would juggle and pass and bobble and mingle Hemingway, Faulkner, Malamud, Bellow and Roth. N would ask what Roth was saying in class and V would wonder about his criticisms of my writing. I would ask about their projects and their kids and soon the elegant food would be eaten and I would be poking at a pie. V would with the wave of a hand have put all four kids to bed and would join us again.
                And then N, a very fine actor, would start to say Fitzgerald's words about Gatsby's party, like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars, and we would listen quietly, V and I, until he reached the yellow cocktail music and then we would move a little in our seats knowing that it soon would be over, as would the dinner, the talk, this little splendid bubble.
                I would go to sleep in the den, in love with the lot of them - including Billie and F. Scott - and soon it would be morning and the four kids would be puttering and muttering about breakfast and I would get up to help or kibitz or just Uncle John it a little in their cosy kitchen.
                Then I would be back on my bicycle, down the hill towards Princeton, the dew of yesterday's poetry evaporating fast, books to be read, people to be seen.
                So today in Copenhagen on waves of jazz, V and N still stand on their hill with Billie and Scott, the four kids and a memory of America not easily forgotten.

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