Sample text for Martin Bauman, or, A sure thing / David Leavitt.


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Counter Flint"s First Principle
I first met Stanley Flint in the winter of 1980, when I was nineteen.
He was between editorial greatnesses then, just fired by the famous
magazine but not yet hired by the famous publisher. To earn his keep
he traveled from university to university, offering his famous
Seminar on the Writing of Fiction, which took place one night a week
and lasted for four hours. Wild rumors circulated about this seminar.
It was said that at the beginning of the term he made his students
write down their deepest, darkest, dirtiest secrets and then read
them aloud one by one. It was said that he asked if they would be
willing to give up a limb in order to write a line as good as the
opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It was said that
he carried a pistol and shot it off every time a student read what he
considered to be a formidable sentence.
As the former fiction editor of Broadway magazine, Flint was
already notorious in those days, though his notoriety was of an oddly
secondary variety, the result of his having published, during his
tenure there, the first stories of some writers who had gone on to
become great - so great, in fact, that their blazing aureoles shone
backwards, as it were, illuminating the face of Flint the Discoverer,
Flint the Seer, who had had the acumen not only to recognize genius
in its rawest form, but to pluck it from the heap, nurture it, refine
it. Soon he had such a reputation that it was claimed he needed only
to make a phone call and a writer would have a publishing contract,
just like that - until the editor in chief of Broadway, either from
jealousy or because Flint had had an affair with his secretary (it
depended who you asked), fired him. Much media uproar followed but no
job offers, and Flint went to work as a teacher, in which role he
cultivated an aura of mystic authority; for instance, he was supposed
to have gotten one of his students a six-figure advance on the basis
of a single paragraph, which was probably the real reason why three
hundred people had applied for the fifteen places in his class.
I remember vividly the room in which that seminar took place.
Located just off the informal library of one of the dormitories, it
was oblong and narrow, with wheezing radiators and shelves full of
books too obscure or valueless even to bother cataloguing. On the
chalkboard - left over from an Italian class that had met earlier in
the day - the conjugation of the verb mangiare was written in a tidy
hand. Because I had arrived twenty minutes early the first evening,
only one other person was seated at the battered oak table, a girl
with circular glasses and tight blond braids, her attention
scowlingly focused on some German worksheets. Not wanting to appear
idle in the presence of such industry, I busied myself arranging my
coat and scarves over the back of a chair (it was January), then,
pulling a book at random from one of the shelves, sat down and
started to read it. The book was called Dawn to Sunset, and it had
been published in 1904. On the title page its author had written the
following inscription: "Con molto affetto, from one who spent his
formative years "neath thy Ivied walls, James Egbert Hillman, "89.
Sorrento."
"Florence!" the first chapter began.
Flinging open the curtains, Dick Dandridge stared wonderingly at the
piazza in morning light. Such a buzz of activity! It was market day,
and at little stalls old women in black dresses were selling apples
and potatoes. Two horses with caps on their ears pulled a wine cart
past the picturesque medieval church. Italy, Dick thought,
remembering, for a moment, his mother weeping as his ship set sail
from New York, and then his adventures in London, in Paris, at the
customs house in Chiasso. He could not wait to get out into it, and
pulling his nightshirt over his head, he called out to his friend
Thornley, "Get up, slug-a-bed! We"ve Florence to see!"
A Hispanic girl with bangs and acne on her forehead now came
in and took a seat; then a pair of boys, in avid conversation; then a
boy with a withered arm whom I recognized from a class on modern
poetry the semester before. We saluted each other vaguely. The girl
with the braids and the big glasses put away her worksheets.
A conversation started. Over the voices of Dick Dandridge and
his friend Thornley, one of the pair of boys said, "I wasn"t on the
list, but I"m hoping he"ll let me in anyway." (At this last remark I
smiled privately. Though only a sophomore, I was on the list.) The
boy who had said this, I observed, was handsome, older than I, with
wire-rimmed spectacles and a two-days" growth of beard; it pleased me
to think that Stanley Flint had preferred my submission to his. And
meanwhile every seat but one had been taken; students were sitting on
the floor, sitting on their backpacks, leaning against the shelves.
Then Stanley Flint himself strode through the door, and all
conversation ceased. There was no mistaking him. Tall and limping,
with wild dark hair and a careful, gray-edged beard, he carried a
whiff of New York into the room, a scent of steam rising through
subway grates which made me shudder with longing. Bearing a wine-
colored leather briefcase with brass locks, dressed in a gray suit,
striped tie, and fawn trench coat that, as he sat down, he took off
and flung dramatically over the back of his chair, he seemed the
embodiment of all things remote and glamorous, an urban adulthood to
which I aspired but had not the slightest idea how to reach. Even his
polished cane, even his limp - like everything about Flint, its
origins were a source of speculation and wild stories - spoke to me
of worldliness and glamour and the illicit.
He did not greet us. Instead, opening his briefcase, he took
out a yellow legal pad, a red pencil, and a copy of the list of
students he had accepted for the seminar. "Which one of you is
Lopez?" he asked, scanning the list. "You?" (He was looking at the
girl with bangs and bad skin.)
"No, I"m Joyce Mittman," the girl said.
"Then you must be Lopez." (This time he addressed her
neighbor, another Hispanic girl, her hair cut short like a swimmer"s.)
"No, I"m Acosta," the neighbor said.
A low murmur of laughter now circulated - one in which
Flint"s raspy baritone did not take part. Looking up, he settled his
gaze on a tall, elegant young woman in a cowl-neck sweater who was
standing in the corner. She was the only other Hispanic in the room.
"Then you must be Lopez," he said triumphantly.
The girl did not smile. "Did you get my note?" she asked.
"Did you bring the story?" he answered.
She nodded.
"Over here, over here." Flint tapped the table.
Extracting some pages from her backpack, Lopez walked to the
front of the room and handed them over. Flint put on a pair of
tortoiseshell half-glasses. He read.
After less than half a minute, he put the pages down.
"No, no, I"m sorry," he said, giving them back to her. "This
is crap. You will never be a writer. Please leave."
"But you"ve only -"
"Please leave."
Lopez wheezed. A sort of rictus seemed to have seized her -
and not only her, but me, the other students, the room itself. In the
high tension of the moment, no one moved or made a sound, except for
Flint, who scribbled blithely on his legal pad. "Is something wrong?"
he asked.
The question broke the spell, unpalsied poor Lopez, who
stuffed the crumpled pages into her backpack and made for the door,
slamming it behind her as she went.
"In case you were wondering what happened," Flint said,
continuing to scribble, "Miss Lopez sent me a note requesting that I
look at her story tonight, as she had missed the submission deadline.
I agreed to do so. Unfortunately I did not think the story to be
worthy." Gazing up from his pad, he counted with his index
finger. "And now I see that there are twenty - twenty-two people in
this room. As I recall I selected only fifteen students for the
class. I would appreciate it if those of you whose names were not on
the list would please leave now, quietly, and without creating a
spectacle of the sort that we have just witnessed from Miss Lopez."
Several people bolted. Again Flint counted. Nineteen of us
remained.
"I should tell you now," Flint said, "that the stories you
submitted, to a one, were shit, though those written by the fifteen
of you whom I selected at least showed conviction - a wisp of truth
here or there. As for the rest, you are courageous to have stuck it
out, I"ll give you that, and as courage is the one virtue every
fiction writer must possess in spades, I shall let you stay - that
is, if you still feel inclined after I tell you what I expect of you."
Then he stood and began to speak. He spoke for two hours.
So began life with Stanley Flint. I"m sorry to say I don"t
remember much of what he said that evening, though I do retain a
general impression of being stirred, even awed; he was a marvelous
raconteur, and could keep us rapt all evening with his monologues,
which often ranged far afield from the topic at hand. Indeed, today I
regret that unlike the girl with the braids - her name, I soon
learned, was Baylor - I never took notes during class. Otherwise I"d
have before me a detailed record of what Flint had to tell us those
nights, rather than merely the memory of a vague effulgence out of
the haze of which an aphorism occasionally emerges, fresh and entire.
For instance: "The greatest sin you can commit as a writer is to put
yourself in a position of moral superiority to your characters."
(Though I have never ceased to trumpet this rule, I have often broken
it.) Or: "People forgive genius everything except success."
Or: "Remember that when you ask someone to read a story you"ve
written, you"re asking that person to give you a piece of his life.
Minutes - hours - of his life." (The gist of this idea was expressed
by "Flint"s first principle," of which Flint"s first principle was
exemplary: "Get on with it!")
It was all a great change from the only other writing class
I"d ever taken, a summer poetry workshop sponsored by the Seattle
junior college - a remnant of sixties idealism, all pine trees and
octagons - where my mother had once gone to hear lectures on Proust.
Of this workshop (the word in itself is revealing) I was the only
male member. Our teacher, a young woman whose watery blond hair
reached nearly to her knees, imparted to the proceedings the mildewy
perfume of group therapy, at once confessional and pious. Often class
was held outdoors, on a lawn spattered with pine needles, which is
perhaps why my memory has subsequently condensed that entire series
of afternoons into the singular image of one of my classmates, a
heavy girl with red spectacle-welts on her nose, standing before us
in the sunlight and reading a poem of which only one line -"the
yellow flows from me, a river"- remains, the words themselves flowing
from her sad mouth in a repetitive drone, like a river without source
or end.
Flint"s seminar, to say the least, had a different rhythm. It
worked like this: at the beginning of each session a student would be
asked to read aloud from his or her work. The student would then read
one sentence. If Flint liked the sentence, the student would be
allowed to continue; if he did not, however - and this was much more
common - the student would be cut off, shut up, sent to the corner. A
torrent of eloquence would follow, the ineffectuality of this slight
undergraduate effort providing an occasion for Flint to hold forth
dazzlingly, and about anything at all. His most common complaint was
that the sentence amounted to "baby talk" or "throat-clearing"- this
latter accusation almost invariably followed by the
invocation "Remember Flint"s first principle!" and from us, the
responsorial chant, "Get on with it!"
Soon we understood that Flint loathed "boyfriend stories,"
stories in which the protagonist was a writer, stories set in
restaurants or cocktail lounges. To cocktail lounges he showed a
particular aversion: any story set in a cocktail lounge would provoke
from him a wail of lamentation, delivered in a voice both stentorian
and grave, a sermon-izer"s voice, for the truth was, there was
something deeply ministerial about Flint. Meanwhile the student whose
timid words had provoked this outpouring would have no choice but to
sit and percolate, humiliated, occasionally letting out little gasps
of self-defense, which Flint would immediately quash. An atmosphere
of hyperventilation ensued. The windows steamed. Those Flint had
maligned stared at him, choking on the sentences in which, a moment
earlier, they had taken such pride, and which he was now shoving back
down their throats.
Yet when, on occasion, he did like a sentence - or even more
rarely, when he allowed a student to move from the first sentence to
the second, or from the second to the third - it was as if a window
had been thrown open, admitting a breath of air into the churning
humidity of that room, and yet a breath that would cool the face of
the chosen student only, bathing him or her in the delightful breeze
of laudation, while outside its influence the rest of us sweltered,
wiping our noses, mopping our brows. Sometimes he even let his
favorites - of whom Baylor, the girl with the braids, soon became the
exemplar - read a story all the way to the end. On these occasions
the extravagance of Flint"s praise more than matched the barbarity of
his deprecation. Not content merely to pay homage, he would seem
actually to bow down before the author, assuming the humble posture
of a supplicant. "I"m honored," he"d say, "I"m moved," while the
student in question glanced away, embarrassed. We all knew that his
adulation, at such moments, was over the top - a reflection, perhaps,
of the depth to which his passions ran, or else part of a strategy
intended to make us feel as if his approval were something on which
our very lives depended.
Still, he was nothing if not consistent. Whether delivering
tirade or paean, he never wavered from his literary ethos, at the
core of which lay the belief that all human experiences, no matter
how different they might seem on the surface, shared a common
grounding. This theme ("Flint"s second principle") he trumpeted at
every opportunity. To perceive something one had gone through as
particular or special, he kept telling us, was to commit not merely
an error, but a sin against art. On the other hand, by admitting the
commonality that binds us all, not only might we win from readers the
precious tremor of empathy that precedes faith, we might also near,
as we could from no other direction, that mercurial yet unwavering
goal: the truth.
In retrospect, I wonder at my ability not only to survive,
but to thrive under such circumstances. Twenty years later I"m more
sensitive rather than less, more cowardly, less likely to consider
the ordeal of Flint"s criticism worth enduring. I feel sympathetic
toward poor Lopez in a way that I didn"t then. Also, so many people
have studied with Flint since 1980 that by now his detractors far
outnumber his supporters, among whom - with some reservations - I
count myself. According to these detractors, Flint was nothing but a
bully, a petty dictator, his classes the ritual induction ceremonies
of the cult over which he presided, like a fat little demigod. For
what, after all, was this alternation of upbraiding with intemperate
homage that he practiced, if not the very essence of brainwashing?
Yes, to his detractors Flint would never be more than a mountebank, a
literary equivalent of Werner Erhard, the self-help guru who in the
late seventies stripped his would-be disciples of their wristwatches
and forbade them to go to the bathroom. Nor can I deny the legitimacy
of their complaints, for he did all the things of which they accuse
him. And yet - how else to say it? - he was great. And if greatness,
these days, arouses suspicion, if not outright hostility, simply by
making itself felt, perhaps this is because great men and women are
rarely nice, and often capricious; or because something in the very
nature of democracy chafes at the idea of too much greatness residing
within a single human frame, instead of being placed at the center of
the arena to be fought over; or because greatness demands of us that
we reconsider, and possibly revise, the very terms according to which
we define our humanity - a task from which mediocrity, by its very
nature, cowers. His detractors are right to describe Stanley Flint as
the leader of a cult. They are wrong in assuming that it was a cult
of personality. If Flint was a missionary, then literature was his
deity. "You"ll never meet anyone who takes writing more seriously
than I do," he told me once. He was right. I never have. Of himself,
on the other hand, I am convinced that he thought very
little.
This became more and more obvious as the semester proceeded.
The third week, for instance, he arrived in class red-faced and
winded, wearing black boots and a Heathcliffish cape. "Children," he
said, limping to the table and opening his briefcase, "I have a
special treat for you tonight," then went on to explain that he had
just received some pages from the novel on which Leonard Trask - the
great writer he had discovered a decade ago, when Trask was still a
mineworker in Montana - had been at work for the past ten years. And
these pages, for our delight as well as our edification, he was now
going to read aloud to us, a rare privilege, as even Trask"s
publisher had not yet seen them.
I remember wondering, that night, at Flint"s cape. Certainly
it contributed to the element of theatricality that underlay his
performance, a quality of spectacle with which Flint invested all his
readings, but particularly those of the writers he had discovered, or
whose work he revered. Diction precise, voice rapturous, he offered
us Trask"s finely tuned sentences as if each were a delicacy, a slice
of white truffle, or a toast point spread with caviar. Indeed, so
sumptuous was his delivery that today I recall nothing of the reading
itself. Instead it is only the voice of the caped orator that
resonates, a voice so charismatic that it seemed to eclipse
everything around it: our faces, the snow outside the window, even
the novel-forever-in-progress that had occasioned it.
Another recollection: one particularly cold, blizzardy night,
Flint brought in a copy of some literary quarterly - I forget which
one - and thrust it in front of our faces. "Do you know this
magazine?" he asked, pointing at the matte white cover, which was
already smudged with fingerprint-shaped patches of New York Times ink.
We did not.
"I"m going to read you a story I"ve had occasion to see here
recently," Flint went on, "because I want to know, honestly, what you
think of it." And he began to read. One sentence, two sentences. He
stopped. "No, no," he said, shaking his head. "All wrong. No life.
Take this as a lesson, children. The language is being mangled, not
caressed. And this sort of thing appears all the time in our better
literary journals."
We stayed silent. Clearing his throat, he read another
sentence - and stopped again. "You see?" he said. "It is in your
eyes. The story has failed to captivate. It has failed to seduce. I
wrote this," he added casually, slipping the magazine back into his
briefcase as a rattle of surprise passed through the room. For up
until that moment, we had not known that Flint himself was a writer.
The next morning, I looked up his name in the periodicals
index at the library. It turned out that he had published a dozen
stories over the past decade, all of them in obscure journals with
tiny print runs, none in the great organs of culture in which the
work of his disciples regularly appeared. Of the stories themselves -
all of which I dug out and read - I remember few details. Most of
them were not even stories so much as brief bits of language torture,
congested, constipated even, and redolent of some long and futile
labor - as if the sentences had been subjected to such anguished
revision, worked over so many times, that they had finally expired
from the effort. Then, for the first time, I felt that I understood
Stanley Flint. Far from some disinterested nurturer, he was a
literary Tantalus, from whose dry and reaching lips that flow of
eloquence, a single taste of which would have satiated him, forever
bent away. Yes, his was the cruel position of the high priest who
finds himself envying the very God it is his sacred duty to
cultivate; and yet who can say whether this envy is not itself
intended to be the ultimate test of his faith?

Although in memory those hours I spent under Flint"s tutelage have
now bloated to the point that they seem to obliterate everything else
I did and thought that semester, the truth is that every day except
Wednesday (when the seminar met) I was leading the typically
desultory life of the undergraduate, in which Flint played no part;
that is to say, I went to class, I studied, I brooded over futile
crushes, I ate my dinners and breakfasts in the dining hall, I had
friends. Never in my life have I had so many friends. Lately I"ve
come to believe that the process of growing older is essentially one
of ruthless and continual editing, so that the novel of one"s
experience - at nineteen a huge and undisciplined mess, heavily
annotated, the pages out of sequence - will by forty have resolved
itself into a fairly conventional tale of provincial life, and by
sixty be reduced to one of those incisive, "minimalist" works in
which irony and wordplay displace "plot" (a word I put in quotation
marks because Flint loathed it). Thus at thirty-eight I travel in a
comparatively restricted circle. At nineteen, on the other hand, I
had dozens of friends, and more than that, I looked upon every one of
them as a potential intimate.
Occasionally, during those abundant days, I would run into my
classmates from Flint"s seminar. Mittman was one of the servers in my
dining hall - she"d barely nod at me as she spooned eggs Florentine
(hard-boiled eggs with spinach, and not Florentine at all) onto my
plate. Baylor and I were taking the same big lecture course on the
art of the Italian Renaissance. We used to encounter each other in
the dimly lit gallery wherein were hung reproductions of the
paintings and sculptures the titles and locations of which we were
supposed to memorize for our midterm. In the gloomy silence she"d
sometimes cast me a conspiratorial glance, as if we were members of
one of the secret societies that flourished on the campus.
Once, at an informational meeting about an internship at a
New York publishing house for which I wanted to apply, I even ran
into Lopez. Legs crossed, dressed as before in a sleek cowl-neck
sweater, she sat across the table from me and took notes, her face a
study of elegant composure. Yet when I smiled at her, she turned
away, refusing so much as to meet my glance.
Still, despite all this activity, Wednesday nights remained
the epicenter of my life that semester, the black hole into which all
the other days and nights collapsed. In part this was due to anxiety.
The term was nearly half over, and I still hadn"t managed to get past
the first sentence with Flint. "Bauman, Bauman, Bauman," he"d wail
whenever I started to read, and cover his head with his hands. It
seemed I was making the same mistake over and over: I kept trying to
write about my mother, who was at that time undergoing radiation
therapy treatments for cancer, and I couldn"t get it right. Every
sentence had to do with lumps: ""Feel my lumps," my mother says to my
father" is one example.
"You"re playing for sympathy," Flint would tell me whenever I
read these sentences. "You want us to feel sorry for you. See? We
don"t."
Finally I decided to change my tactics. I"d recently read an
article about a couple called Bo and Peep, who would later become the
founders of the notorious Heaven"s Gate cult. At the time, however,
they were just another pair of late-seventies lunatics, wandering
through the Midwest and soliciting disciples to go with them to some
spot in the desert where a spaceship was supposed to pick them up. In
their rather pathetic (and surprisingly successful) efforts to enlist
followers, I sensed the possibility of a story, the heroine of which
would be my oldest aunt, Lily, who shocks her family by deciding to
run off with Bo and Peep, whom I renamed FeeFi and FoFum. Lily,
already in her eighties by this time, and living in a Florida
retirement community, I called Bessie, and repatriated to the
Brooklyn of her youth.
That Wednesday I hoped Flint wouldn"t call on me. I didn"t
think I was ready yet. Also, I had a good feeling about the story and
wanted to wait until it was finished before I shared it. As it turned
out, however, I had nothing to worry about, for when Flint stormed
into class - late, for the first time all semester, and clutching a
mass of documents in his fist - it was obvious that something
momentous (and probably
terrible) had occurred. "I"m sorry to have kept you waiting," he
said, throwing off his coat. "I don"t know if you"ve heard what"s
happened . . ."
We said nothing. Clearly no one had.
"Children, I arrived this evening on the campus of your great
university, full of beans, eager to see every one of you," he
continued. "Little did I imagine that upon stepping into my office I
would be confronted with this"- he indicated the documents -"a
situation the likes of which, in my wildest dreams, I could never
have imagined. I"m deeply bereaved. I"m also outraged. Especially
after last week, when Baylor delighted us so much with her marvelous
story . . ."
Again, silence. Sitting down, he thrust a heavy hand through
his dark hair. "And to think that just a few hours ago . . . And now
this horror, this sickening slander . . ."
"What happened?" Mittman asked meekly.
It turned out that Lopez - the same Lopez whose work he had
so efficiently decimated the first night of class, and whom I had
only a few days ago encountered at the internship meeting - had
lodged a formal complaint against him, of which he had been apprised
only that evening. Her affidavit, phrased in the acid, impersonal
language of lawsuits, he now read aloud, holding it away from his
face as if it were literally noxious. My impression was that more
than anything else, the writing itself wounded him, for what was this
affidavit but that story that most offended his delicate
sensibilities, the story that lied, that
put itself in a position of moral superiority to its characters, that
failed to recognize the commonality of the human condition: in short,
the very story Lopez had handed him our first evening, and that he
was now finding himself obliged - bullied, even - to read through to
the end?
Alas, the bullying worked. For the moment, at least, Lopez
triumphed. According to her affidavit, Flint had glanced first at
Mitt-man, then at Acosta, then at her, and said, "You wetbacks all
look alike to me."
"A gross libel!" he shouted now, throwing down the pages. "I
never said such a thing!" Mittman affirmed that he had not. Acosta
seconded. "How can literature survive in such an atmosphere? Ah,
children, how numerous are the enemies of the imagination - and in
what guises of piety they clothe themselves! The literal is never the
truth. Take this down. The literal blinds us. The facts do not speak."
He wiped his eyes. He looked - this man who craved only the
purest water - as if he had just been forced to swallow a gallon of
bile. "To make such an accusation against me - me, of all people," he
went on, "I, who have always been the greatest advocate of tolerance,
who has suffered himself bigotry the likes of which, children, I pray
you shall never know! Anyone could tell you that. I was in Selma, for
God"s sake. I was arrested in Selma. The record proves it. I
published the first story by a black woman ever to appear in
Broadway, and it was a hell of a struggle to get it through. And that
woman was Nancy Coleridge. She was on welfare. In Cincinnati, on
welfare. And now look at her - they say she may get the Nobel Prize,
for Christ"s sake! This complaint of Miss Lopez"s, this is not a
crime against me personally, this is not about me personally, this is
a crime against art. For what has she done but use language - our
most precious asset - to level a blow at freedom?"
Someone lit a cigarette. The boy with the spectacles offered
to fetch Flint a cocktail from his room. He refused.
Needless to say, no one read that night. Instead Flint
talked. He talked and talked. First he said he was going to resign.
Then he swore he would never again set foot on the campus of our
university. We pleaded with him to reconsider. We offered to write
letters, to start a petition. He kept shaking his head. I think he
rather enjoyed being the object of our entreaties. Finally he thanked
and dismissed us, promising to mull the situation over before making
a final decision. For the first and last time all term, the seminar
let out early.
The process by which all of this was resolved - of which I
learned the details only several months later - was as follows: after
class that evening, Mittman and Acosta paid an unannounced visit to
Lopez in her dormitory, dismissing her roommate peremptorily. Behind
locked doors, the three of them then spoke heatedly for several
hours, emerging, according to a witness, only around sunrise, arm in
arm, tears in their eyes: a photo op for sisterhood. That morning,
accompanied by her new friends, Lopez officially withdrew her
complaint against Stanley Flint.
The next week he was back, as volatile and jubilant as ever.
No allusion was made to the black events of the previous Wednesday.
For several sessions he oscillated in his usual way between
approbation and decimation, while I, uncalled upon, labored privately
at my story about Aunt Lily. Progress was slow; by spring break I
still hadn"t finished. Instead of going home to California I decided
to stay on campus, where every afternoon I holed up in the rear
smoking section of the undergraduate library. Most of my companions
there were lesbians, some with rings in their noses, all followers of
one or another of the fashionable theorists of the moment, and at
work on long essays or theses. To my left Gretchen, a
deconstructionist, wrote about Jane Austen; to my right Schuyler, a
Lacanian feminist, toiled away on Melanie Klein. I ground out my
story.
Spring break ended. Classmates I didn"t like returned,
bronzed and fit after vacations in Florida, while the lesbians, their
skin library-pallid, smoked and wrote and ignored them. I finished my
story, then stayed up most of Tuesday night typing, so that I could
bring it to class the next evening.
It was now April - the sort of April we see less and less
these days, during which winter, like an obstinate old tenant,
refuses to leave, even as spring tries over and over again to evict
her. No sooner would tiny buds have appeared on the trees than a
biting wind would have whipped up, shriveling these nubs of life
before they could flower. Or I"d be sunning one day with my friends
on the lawn in front of the library, when suddenly rain would start
to fall, and within a few hours a blizzard would blanket the fresh
grass with snow. A perpetual sludge of muddy ice made the flagstones
treacherous. The night I read aloud for the seminar, because I had on
the wrong shoes, I slipped on the way, tearing a hole in the knee of
my jeans. My eastern classmates, all of whom owned more appropriate
footwear, laughed at me when I entered the seminar room. Every sign
for success seemed inauspicious.
Then Flint limped into class with his briefcase, his smell of
subways. "Good to see you all again," he said gruffly, unwinding his
long cashmere scarf in a way that meant business. No preludes, no
reading from newly received galleys. "Well, who are we going to hear
from tonight?"
I raised my hand.
"All right, Bauman. Wow us."
He sat back. Baylor crossed her arms and stared at me.
"Aunt Bessie was thirty when my father was born," I
read, "the first son at last after nine daughters."
I paused, taking it for granted, after so many failed
efforts, that Flint would now interrupt me, shake his head,
mutter, "Bauman, Bauman, Bauman."
Instead he said, "Go on."
I looked up. My heart began to race.
"His birth was a relief to my grandparents," I read, "who
could finally stop conceiving."
He smiled. "Go on."
I went on. I read the entire story - all thirty-five pages.
It took almost an hour. By the time I"d finished rain had started
outside, and Flint was still smiling.
"Who"d have ever thought," he said, "that something like this
would come from Bauman?"
I think I almost fainted. It was as if, with a single
gesture, Flint had swept away winter. Suddenly I danced in a spring
glade. His words flowed around and over and through me. I caught
nothing of their meaning. Instead (as I am told is the case with
dogs) it was the cadences of his approval, the intonations of his
praise, that warmed and restored me.
From that evening on, I was his favorite; and not merely a
favorite, but the favorite among favorites. Like the snow itself, my
anxiety melted and was gone. It was as if, having written such a
story, I"d
been absolved (at least by myself) of that necessity to win Flint
over that had driven me since the beginning of the term. Freed from
pressure, I came to class laughing, and always took the seat directly
to his left.
Now, I think, is the moment to make certain confessions
regarding my character, then and now. For all my awkwardness as a
young man, my timidity, that tendency to feel ill at ease among
strangers which had made me so shy the first night of Flint"s
seminar, I was (and am) both ambitious and competitive. What I
craved, more than anything else, was success, a word that in my mind
I took to be synonymous with "approval." The origins of this
misapprehension I shall explore in greater detail later on. Suffice
it to say, for now, that as early as my freshman year, I had a
reputation among my peers for being both arrogant and opportunistic:
a reputation, moreover, which, though the natural result of my loud
and occasionally obnoxious comportment, could not have been more at
odds with the image that I cultivated of myself, as sincere,
generous, and above all guileless. I didn"t recognize, in other
words, the degree to which my desire to please dictated not only my
conduct, but the very approach I took to writing, which even then I
considered my métier. Thus you may recall that earlier, when
describing the process by which I came to write the story with which
I eventually won Stanley Flint"s heart, I said, without even being
conscious of it, that at a certain point I decided to "change my
tactics." Tactics, more than I care to admit today, dictated my
decision to write that particular story. Above all else, I wanted to
please my teacher. I was a revolting example of the "teacher"s pet."
I must have been unbearable. For instance, a few weeks after
my triumph with Flint, I was reading aloud from a new story, a
slapdash thing that I considered to be extremely funny - so funny
that halfway through I broke into a fit of debilitating
laughter. "I"m sorry," I spluttered, putting down my pages.
No one else was laughing. "It"s all right," Flint said
coolly. "I always enjoy the spectacle of a writer amusing himself."
(It is a testament to my denseness that I took this remark as a
compliment.)
Shortly after this episode he assigned us one of his rare in-
class exercises: each of us was to write a one-sentence description
of someone else in the room, then read it aloud, after which the rest
of us would try to guess who it was that was being described. I have
no memory of what I wrote myself that night. What I do recall is that
Mittman described a very beautiful girl named Thompson (with Flint we
were all on a last-name basis) as "silvery"; also, that the boy with
the wire-rimmed spectacles, when his turn came, described someone as
being "ready to pounce on a sure thing." At first I couldn"t imagine
to whom he was referring, until Baylor said, "That"s Bauman." A
murmur of concurrence followed. "Bauman," the choristers repeated.
And Flint agreed: "No doubt about it. Bauman."
Ready to pounce on a sure thing. When I was a child the boys
at my bus stop used to call out "Faggot!" as I approached in the
morning with my lunch box. Just as they intuited from my behavior -
in particular, from the ways I interacted with them - a facet of my
identity of which I myself was still unconscious, so the boy with the
spectacles, with that uncanny prescience of peers, had detected a
strain of ruthlessness in my character that would later blossom into
fanatical professionalism, but remained for the moment, as it were,
latent, unbudded. For I had a lot invested, in those years, in an
idea of myself as innocent and goodhearted; nor was I far off the
mark, since the truth is, ruthlessness of the sort I displayed can
derive from innocence and goodheartedness; specifically, the
innocent, goodhearted craving of the child for adult approval.
The boy with the spectacles attracted and scared me. I"m
sorry to say that today I don"t remember his name, even though I
often thought about him then, in particular about the way his chest
hair - the color of champagne - seemed literally to bubble out of the
collar of his sweater. A few years later I ran into him in New York,
and he told me almost boastfully that after class that first night
Flint had approached him to find out where on campus he might go to
get some "pussy." That was the word he used: "pussy." Our
conversation left me with the impression that between him and Flint
there had developed one of those buddyish intimacies to which the
joint pursuit of women lends an erotic edge. I pictured them prowling
the campus like male dogs who have picked up the scent of a female in
heat, an image the contemplation of which left me feeling
emasculated, excluded, and faintly aroused.
I suppose now that I was a little in love with Flint. And why
shouldn"t I have been? He was a good-looking man, lean and surly,
with hands like broken-in leather gloves. Nor did his reputation as a
womanizer in any way detract from the effect he had on me. On the
contrary, it served only to intensify my idea of him as an avatar of
masculine virility. For what I wanted from Flint, I told myself,
wasn"t so much sex as permission - to write, to think of myself as a
writer. Today I recognize the degree to which this need for his
approbation encoded a desire I had heretofore never admitted: the
desire for men - and more specifically, for older, fatherly men who
didn"t desire me. (About this desire I felt a sense of shame that
persisted even after I had come out, leading me to pretend that I was
attracted to "nice" boys my own age, instead of the burly men in
their thirties and forties who figured in my daydreams.) A long time
later, when I was living with Eli Aronson, and having always to come
up with new sexual fantasies by means of which I could maintain the
façade of mutual lust upon which our relationship depended, I started
for the first time to have explicitly sexual thoughts about my former
teacher. Giving Eli a blowjob in his loft on Elizabeth Street, I"d
find myself back to my college dorm room. It would be late at night -
Wednesday night - and someone would be knocking at the door. I"d
answer. "Bauman, Bauman," Flint would say, "I"m desperate. I can"t
find any pussy." And I would invite him in, sit him down on the bed
(he would require help with his bad leg), undo his pants, and take
his penis - long, I imagined, and not terribly hard, though ruddy -
into my mouth . . .
What was exciting to me about this fantasy (and what made it
one of the ones, in those years, on which I could count even when all
else failed to carry me through the bouts of fretful lovemaking on
which Eli and I so perversely staked our happiness) was the fact that
in it, Flint showed no sexual interest whatsoever in me. Instead I
was only a last-ditch alternative, a cavity into which he might pour
his overarching need for that realm of feminine receptivity to which
the boy with the spectacles had alluded when he"d used the
word "pussy." "Help me out, Bauman," Flint would say in this fantasy:
never "I want you" or "I love you." That would have spoiled
everything. Indeed, if someone had told me that Flint was secretly
homosexual, or that he was in love with one of the boys in the class,
I think I would have lost all respect (not to mention desire) for
him, instead of living, as I did, for the day when he might let me
call him mentor.
As for his real life - his life in New York - I knew almost
nothing. That he was married and had several children, one a
sophomore at my university, I had divined from casual references he"d
made during class. The names of these children, however, he never
shared, just as he refused to give us (or anyone) his home address
and phone number. Like many great and neurotic men, he had a
persecution complex, and feared lest some madman - probably a writer
whose stories he had refused to publish in Broadway - should track
him down and shoot him in his bed.
Even murkier were the details of his early years. For
example, though it was assumed from a certain lilt in his accent that
he was southern, no one I asked seemed to have any idea where exactly
he"d grown up, where (or whether) he"d gone to college. Baylor said
she"d heard that "Stanley Flint" was not his real name, while
Thompson, who had connections in the magazine world, claimed to have
it on authority that he"d done time in prison. I wasn"t sure whether
I believed any of this; nor, if truth be told, did the details of his
youth interest me nearly as much as the mystery of how he spent all
the days of the week that weren"t Wednesday, those days when he
tarried in realms of sophistication to which, I felt certain, he was
habituated, and which I longed to know. Unfortunately, about these
points he was equally unforthcoming - not only, I suspect, because he
wanted to protect his privacy, but because his enthusiasm for writing
itself rendered all other aspects of the literary life, in his mind,
superfluous. Thus he might casually mention having run into Susan
Sontag "at a party," but only as a way of introducing some trenchant
observation about Sontag"s work - an observation the most basic
rudiments of which I would fail to take in, so awed was I by the very
idea of a party at which Susan Sontag would be a guest. Or he might
tell us that he"d been at dinner with a young writer named Liza
Perlman, the daughter of the literary agent Sada Perlman, who seemed
to represent all his favorites. Though only twenty, she had just
published her first novel, Midnight Snacks. "Look at this," Flint
would taunt, thrusting in our faces the book"s backside, from which
Liza"s benign, oddly asymmetrical face, framed by red hair, stared
out. "A junior in college, and already she has a book out. It makes
you jealous, doesn"t it? But could you do better?"
The fact was, I had no idea if I could do better. Indeed, so
dazzled was I by Liza Perlman"s public image (and what was that photo
on the back of the book but a literal public image?) that I barely
registered her reality as a human being with whom I might someday
compete. Though later she would become an intimate fixture of my
life, Liza existed for me in those days less as a person than as a
sort of fleshly emanation of that city in which she had gone to
dinner with Stanley Flint, and in which I, too, hoped someday to
live; indeed, had hoped to live ever since the summer my mother had
taken my sister and me to spend two days at the St. Moritz Hotel, two
days during which we did only the usual tourist things - shopped, and
went to Broadway shows, and ate lunch at Rumpelmayer"s, where a
waitress, when I asked for more water, snapped, "You"ve had your
quota." And yet even this glimpse of New York had been enough to
provoke in me a hunger for the city that lasted the next twenty years.
"And another hundred people just got off of the train," Marta
(in the guise of my sister) sang in a community theater production of
Company to which I went that autumn. It was curious: watching her
from the audience, I wanted to be one of those hundred people, for
even then the city"s famed and pitiless indifference to new arrivals
appealed to me at least as much as the array of beguilements, sexual
and cultural, with which it enticed - movies and plays, lovers and
restaurants, that whole landscape of anonymous distraction through
which I saw myself wandering, not so much invisible as unrecognized,
a hurtling atom in some charged and fluid field of possibility.
That night I began nurturing a dream of the adulthood I would
have in New York, a dream in which I lived on a high floor of a new
skyscraper, in a perfectly round apartment the entirety of which was
taken up by a circular mattress covered with pillows, and from the
cushioned heights of which I might look out, each evening, at the
brilliant light show that somehow I possessed even as it possessed
me, along with Stanley Flint and Liza Perlman and all its other
denizens. Denizens, not citizens: already I was thinking of New York
as a place to which I was doomed. And as it turned out, I wasn"t far
off the mark. "It"s ruined me for anyplace else," I used to tell
people in those years when I really did live in a high-rise (albeit
not in a round room), the years when I hardly stepped off the island
of Manhattan, and felt sorry for anyone who had the misfortune to
live anywhere else (especially - because the most vivid horror is
always that nearest to home - in Brooklyn or Queens). I couldn"t
imagine that a day would come when I"d view the city as being at
least as narrow and provincial as that landscape of my adolescence
which, like the protagonists of certain stories by Willa Cather, I"d
thrown over, thinking myself too good for it. And yet how could I
have recognized this, when I insisted so stubbornly on endowing New
York with the power to authorize my very selfhood?
One advantage of my university, for me, was its relative
proximity to "the city," which was only an hour east by bus. Already
I went fairly often, usually with my roommate, Jim Sterling, whose
parents lived in a vast apartment on Central Park West. These
weekends we devoted almost exclusively to the consumption of culture:
museums and movies, and on Saturday nights, the theater, usually
serious plays, the latest works by Marsha Norman or David Hare,
instead of the "shows"- things like Cats and Evita - to which my
mother had taken my sister and me, and which I now disdained. Jim"s
ambition was to write for the culture section of the New York Times,
and so in the mornings, over Sunday brunch, he would amuse his
parents and me with disquisitions on whatever we had seen the night
before - long monologues the thread of which I would gradually lose
as I stared over the platter of bagels at Central Park, thinking
about my own adolescence, how meager and colorless it seemed when
compared to Jim"s, which had been crowded with activity: visits to
the Temple of Dendur, and Radio City Music Hall, and the Museum of
Natural History. Not that I had grown up in Willa Cather"s Nebraska;
indeed, our pleasant Seattle neighborhood was by any standard other
than my own a utopia. I exaggerated horribly - as if the future I
longed for required as its prerequisite a lonely and impoverished
past.

Toward the end of that semester I entered my story about Aunt Bessie
in a fiction contest that had been initiated a decade earlier by a
famous television reporter in memory of his son, who had died in a
mountain climbing accident. The story won - the first time the prize
had ever been given to a sophomore. Not surprisingly, everyone else
in Flint"s seminar had entered the contest too. My classmates greeted
me, when I arrived for our last meeting, with a sort of low snarl of
congratulations: good wishes beneath which I could detect the
distinct and scary purr of feline rancor.
The weather was unseasonably warm that May. Outside tulips,
undeterred by the late snowstorms, bloomed with a fretful vigor. The
air through the open window of the seminar room smelled sweet, while
on the blackboard the subjunctive conjugation of the verb piacere -
last remnant of that Italian class on which I had eavesdropped
through the semester - testified to the human capacity, mysterious
only when you think about it, to learn. Even Flint, dressed in a pink
shirt and a jacket of greenish tweed, seemed to be in a sweet mood,
at least to judge from the warmth with which he saluted us. Indeed,
so kind was his welcome that for the first time I wondered whether
the savage aspect he had shown that first January night might have
derived not from some streak of sadism in his character, not even
from an idea he had about teaching, but from simple shyness.
I remember that in keeping with an old tradition at the
school, everyone had brought food or drink to this last class: bags
of potato chips and bottles of Coke and Sprite and plates of cookies,
which we spread out over the seminar table like goods at a bake sale.
Only Flint did not eat. Instead he talked. "Children, children," he
intoned, his plaintive voice betraying a nostalgia to which I would
not, at first, have thought him susceptible. "How quickly things end.
It"s hard to imagine that only a few months have passed since our
first evening together . . . yet this is the nature of things. You
have been a blessing to me, every one of you. Of course you shall all
receive A"s, and if there were a higher grade in the universe I would
bestow it upon each of you. I wish I could give you more than A"s.
But I can"t - only this little letter that may be of some use one
day, along with a few parting words, a last assessment, some advice
to take or ignore as you see fit."
All sounds of consumption ceased. I think that what surprised
us wasn"t so much this announcement itself as the fact that he was
planning to give these final evaluations in class. Yet such,
apparently, was his typically unorthodox plan, for now he began to
make his way around the table, from student to student, granting each
of us - even those who, having never gotten past sentence one, had
given up trying - an appraisal at once judicious and generous, a
liberal dollop of that balm he had previously dispensed only in tiny
quantities, on the rare occasions when one of us wrote something that
pleased him.
As for me, I waited. Because - teacher"s pet that I was - I
was seated immediately to his left, I knew I would be the last to be
addressed.
My turn came around ten. "Bauman," he began, turning his
chair toward mine and stretching out his legs. "Bauman, Bauman,
Bauman. What can we say about you? You have won the prize."
Silence. Was this meant as congratulations?
"You have pulled the brass ring, and now you get to ride the
merry-go-round again. In fact, I don"t doubt but that you"ll be
riding the merry-go-round the rest of your life." (Laughter.) "At
first I wasn"t sure what to make of you. You seemed so eager, and so
incompetent." (More laughter.) "But then you got ahold of something
and didn"t let go. And I"ve got to applaud you for it. You"re
fearless. You know what you want. That"s why of all the people in
this room you"re the only one I feel certain will make a success of
himself as a writer. And yet . . . of course there"s an "and yet,"
isn"t there?" (Still more laughter. Flint"s smile disappeared.) "I
fear for you, Bauman. You are eminently corruptible. You can tell a
story, but you haven"t become serious, and worse, you don"t seem to
care about becoming serious. And once you"re out there, in the
marketplace . . . I"m sorry to say it, but it"s easy for me to
imagine you turning into a hack, settling for cheap success, and not
because you"re greedy, but because you desire too desperately to
please." All at once, to my shock, he took my hand. "If you prove me
wrong, I"ll jump for joy. If you don"t, I ask you only to remember
this voice. Remember that I"ve never said a word to you out of self-
interest, or told you only what you wanted to hear."
The room went silent. Quietly Flint removed his glove-leather
hand from mine. "And now," he said, turning away from me, "I bid you
all farewell. Stay in touch. As you know I don"t give out my home
address. Nonetheless you can always reach me care of the English
department here. The magnificent Mrs. Hall, the department secretary,
has promised to forward everything along."
Standing, he put on his coat.
"Aren"t you staying for the party?" Mittman asked.
"No, no," Flint answered sadly. "I -" And shaking his head,
he left. We were alone suddenly, with all that food, and in my case,
a consciousness that I was being stared at - not with envy, no longer
with envy - but with pity.
Pleading a final to study for, I fled. I went back to my
room, where I started packing: in just a few days I would be leaving
for New York, where I"d begin that summer internship at the
publishing house for which I (and not Lopez) had been selected. And
yet I couldn"t concentrate on my suitcases tonight. Instead, sitting
at my desk, I pulled from the drawer the letter I"d just received
from the news reporter, congratulating me on my prize. "Your story is
both delightful and professional," he"d written, just as Flint had
said that of all the students in the class, I was the one most likely
to find success as a writer: words at the utterance of which a
current of pride had surged through me, a sensation of heady potency
that I now tried to revive, to re-feel in its original purity, before
his subsequent admonishments had snuffed it out.
Anyway, were Flint"s warnings fair? Leaning back, I tried to
analyze my behavior over the course of the semester. All I had done,
it seemed to me, was write a story he had liked, and win a prize; yet
now he reproached me . . . and why? People forgive talent everything
except success: Flint himself had told us that. Wasn"t it possible,
then, that in castigating me, he was merely illustrating his own
maxim, giving voice - he whose work had come to so little - to an
envy not only of me, but of all of us, of all that earnest potential,
so far unsullied by spite, that I and my classmates, in our eager
youth, personified?
That night, I committed the first of the many acts of
betrayal that would punctuate the next twenty years of my life. Not
that I denounced Flint, or called up Lopez to tell her she had been
right all along: I did neither. And yet it is often the subtlest
forms of defamation that prove, in the end, the most pernicious. For
Lopez"s campaign against Flint, at least, had had the advantage of
being up front and bold. My own, on the other hand, was underhanded,
and consisted chiefly in telling the many people I met that summer in
New York that though, of course, Flint was a genius - this went
without saying - he was also a demagogue, petty and self-interested,
and always trying to make his students dependent upon him, so that
when or if they became successful, he could claim credit for their
fame, and thus steal a portion of the recognition his own work had
never earned him. (Partly true - which in no way absolves me of the
charge of defamation. Anyway, the truth was not my goal. My goal was
revenge.)
The next afternoon I took the bus into New York, to have
lunch with the young woman who had hired me for the summer internship
at Hudson House Publishers. It was raining. As the bus entered the
Holland Tunnel I thought casually of Flint, how tirelessly he"d
trekked in and back from our school every Wednesday, no matter the
weather. "For you, my children, I"d brave the fiercest storm," he"d
said once, in that voice to the timbre of which I"d thrilled . . . No
more. Already I was listening for other voices, ones which, because
they belonged to a future that was for the moment fictive, a thing of
my own imagining, I could make say whatever I wanted, like the
stuffed animals that as a child I had imbued with personality. A joy
to read, one said. And another said, the next J. D. Salinger. And the
third said (I curse to remember it, I curse to repeat it), The truth
and what you want to hear are the same.

Copyright © 2000 by David Leavitt

All rights reserved


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Creative writing Fiction, Teacher-student relationships Fiction, Fiction Authorship Fiction, New York (N, Y, ) Fiction, Young men Fiction, Gay youth Fiction