Friday, July 9, 2010

OLD FRIENDS

The writers we love—not the ones we merely like, but the ones whose stories set our souls on fire and settle into our very cells—become intimate parts of our lives; dearest of friends who we visit with time and again over the years.  It doesn’t matter how much time passes between visits:  when something draws us to the library shelf, when we pull one of those old, familiar books down, we pick up exactly where we left off.  As it is with our truest friends, our connections to our favorite authors aren’t mired in the past, they’re not about nostalgia:  no, they’re about making all things new.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reuniting with two old, and beloved, literary friends,  J.D. Salinger and Ray Bradbury:  reading Salinger’s Nine Stories for the first time in at least a decade and drinking down Bradbury’s delicious book of essays, Bradbury Speaks, for the second time.
 


As visitors go, Salinger and Bradbury are very different creatures.  When J.D. arrives at the door he’s somewhat reticent, perhaps even a little cold.  No big hugs when he enters, just a quick, efficient handshake.  But as you sit and talk you quickly realize that behind the reticence is a heart as huge as Creation.  With a gentle eagerness and a confidence that’s never in the least bit egotistical, he tells you story after story; aiming the microscope of his mind at every shrug, sigh, cigarette-ash, turn of phrase and vocal inflection of his characters.  Here’s a passage from one of the best of the Nine Stories, “For
Esmé with Love and Squalor”:

She was about thirteen, with straight ash-blond hair of ear-lobe length, an exquisite forehead, and blasé eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house.  Her voice was distinctly separate from the other children’s voices, and not just because she was seated nearest me.  It had the best upper register, the sweetest-sounding, the surest, and it automatically led the way.  The young lady, however, seemed slightly bored with her own singing ability, or perhaps just with the time and place; twice, between verses, I saw her yawn.  It was a ladylike yawn, a close-mouthed yawn, but you couldn’t miss it; her nostril wings gave her away.

What you don’t realize, as you pass the evening with Salinger, is that he keeps magnifying and magnifying the microscope’s lens till you’ve passed through the membrane of the so-called real world and entered the realm of transcendence:  a place where all those details—the endless list of things about ourselves and our fellow humans that irritate, enrapture, shame and delight us—melt and merge into an ocean of compassion and acceptance.

As the visit comes to a close, J.D. offers another handshake, but this one seems to vibrate with that cosmic compassion.  There’s a soft goodbye, a knowing glimmer in the eyes, and then, closing the door quietly behind him, he’s gone.

It’s another story—literally and figuratively—when Bradbury arrives.  The door bursts opens, nearly flying off its hinges, and Ray races into the room, enveloping you in a bear hug—nearly cracking your ribs—spinning you around in circles as he bellows with laughter and perhaps sheds a tear or two, touched, as he is, by this reunion.  No Zen calm for Ray:  he’s a one-man Imagination pantheon, an explosion of gods and goddesses, each one with a unique story to tell.  You get him to sit down for a minute or two, have a sip of wine, but he’s soon up on his feet, dragging you to the window, pointing to the clouds, the moon, the stars...the whole wide universe.  While Salinger gets at the Divine through the tiniest of details, Bradbury wants to wrap his arms around God, yank him down to earth and kiss him full on the mouth.  Here’s a passage from the essay called “Predicting the Past, Remembering the Future”:

My own belief is that the universe exists as a miracle and that we have been born here to witness and celebrate.  We wonder at our purpose for living.  Our purpose is to perceive the fantastic.  Why have a universe if there is no audience?

We are that audience.

We are here to see and touch, describe and move.  Our job, then, is to occupy ourselves with paying back the gift.


People have called Bradbury a science-fiction writer, a fantasist, but I don’t think either label applies.  He’s a preacher, a rhapsodist, an interfaith—no, interdimensional—minister.  I’ve rarely encountered anyone who more eloquently encapsulates the sheer sacred joy of life.  When he’s done, when he’s given his last oratory, spun his last tale, Ray crushes you in another bear-hug then races out the door, leaving you utterly exhausted, inspired—and grateful to be alive.

And how grateful I am to both these literary giants, these treasured, beloved friends.  I will hold fast to them till my last breath.  And, I suspect, long after that.


© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

10 comments:

  1. Nice tribute, JMD. I feel that way about Bob Dylan.

    Not to sound morbid, but its kind of amazing we still have Ray Bradbury with us. He's a literary giant, a cultural legend, in a time when we don't have many of them left.

    I'm re-reading 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and the edition I have features an intro by Bradbury. He sounds exuberant and boyish, even though by the time he wrote it (1961) he was almost 40. And when I see interviews with him now, he seems kinda like the same guy. Amazing, really.

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  2. I agree, Rob, we're extremely lucky to still have Bradbury around: he turns 90 in August!

    Bradbury's intro to 20,000 LEAGUES is actually one of the essays reprinted in BRADBURY SPEAKS: a wonderful piece comparing Verne and Melville.

    You mention Bob Dylan and, of course, I feel the same way about the musicians whose work has impacted my life. But, given how much I've written about John Lennon and the Beatles, you probably knew that already.

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  3. I bought a huge book of short stories by Bradbury 5 years ago in a used bookstore. I haven't read it yet, I've read only two stories inside. That paragraph you quoted by him is wonderful, I think I'll finally take the step to reading more Bradbury.

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  4. Do it, Quigue...you won't regret it! And then come back here and let me know what you thought.

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  5. I'm working on an article about Uncle Elvis. Would you care to comment?
    You can reach me at quakezine@gmail.com
    Mark

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  6. How about a little more information, Mark?

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  7. Mr. DeMatteis,

    I just wanted to take a moment to to let you know how much I have enjoyed your work over the years. "The Child Within," "Kraven's Last Hunt" and "The Gift" are my all-time favorite Spider-Man stories. I was in 6th and 7th grade during the clone saga and really enjoyed your recent Kaine stories. I wanted to ask you something. I was recently flipping through some of my old comics and noticed that the Chameleon's last name is Smerdyakov. Were you the writer who gave him this name, and if so, was it inspired by the character of the Brothers Karamazov of the same name? The relatonship between Kraven and the Chameleon mirros the relationship between Dimitir and Smerdyakov, right down to the latter being illegitimate. Anyway, thanks for all the enjoyment your stories have brought me over the years. I should get back to work, as I cannot bill my clients for talking about comic books :)

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  8. You're right on the money about THE BROTHERS K, Matt. I'm a huge Dostoyevsky fan and I've always seen Kraven as a reflection of the Russian soul in the Dostoyevsky tradition. So, yes, I named Chameleon Smerdyakov and, yes, he was inspired by (what I think is) the greatest novel ever written.

    And thanks so much for the kind words about my work. MUCH appreciated!

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  9. Dear God, I love Ray Bradbury. He's got a writing style unlike anyone else in the entire universe, and some of the images from his stories still stick wth me long after reading them. Mr. DeMatteis, I think you're right to label him an interdimensional minister, because Bradbury sees such joy in life, in even the smallest things like getting a new pair of sneakers. And the amazing thing is that he accomplished all this without a college education, just by sheer imagination and curiosity and by reading lot of books at his local public library. He is a true gift to mankind, and it warms my heart to see a comics creator sharing an admiration for my favorite author. :)

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  10. A true gift indeed, LissBirds! I can't think of another writer who has inspired me the way Bradbury has. Every time I read something of his, it not only feeds the reader in me, it feeds the writer: he makes me want to rush to the computer and create, create, create.

    May he stay with us for many years to come.

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