Thursday, February 11, 2016

`The Past Tense Is Out of Use'

Leopold Tyrmand leaves Poland and arrives for good in the United States in 1966. On his first day in his adopted country, in New York City, he notes: “An ad of Eddie Condon playing in the neighborhood restaurant. All seems larger and better here than in Europe with the exception of frankfurters, which are not as good as in Frankfurt.” In brief, that’s Tyrmand—impish, jazz-loving, happy by nature, relieved to have breached the Iron Curtain and left its dreariness and brutality behind. The book is Notebooks of a Dilettante (MacMillan, 1970), much of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. In the section titled “American Diary,” he recounts a visit to New Orleans (about which he wrote a book in Poland but has never visited): “Jazz—in Europe a symbol of passion or of joy, of spiritual freedom or of cultural independence—is here like oxygen.” Next, Tyrmand is on to Houston, where he has lunch in the Hotel Rice with the Houston Rotary Club:

“. . . the Star-Spangled Banner streams proudly—encouraged with unsophisticated efficiency by a silent fan—the audience sings the anthem. At once I have the impression of facing an enormous, organized strength. An almost military power emanates from these middle-class, suburban, downtown-minded executives, associates, managers, and assistant directors—a conscious, disciplined, social might, constructed differently from that in totalitarian regimes but probably the only kind that could successfully and forcefully resist any encroachment from right or left.”

Tyrmand visits the University of Houston, the Manned Spacecraft Center in Seabrook (now the Johnson Space Center) and the Alley Theatre (he sees Pirandello’s Right You Are if You Think You Are). He notes that the aerospace scientists wanted to talk to him about “film, theatre, the latest books of Bellow and Capote, and were better oriented vis-à-vis Cardinal Wyszyński’s affair than an average newspaperman in France.” Tyrmand writes:

“In Houston the past tense is out of use. The present tense is avoided, and everyone speaks only in the future tense. For example: `This steak is delicious,’ I try to flatter my host. `You’ll have to come next year,’ he assures me. `You’ll see what steaks we have in Texas. . .’

"In the Astrodome, the biggest covered living room in the world, the guide repeats: `In our space age. . .’ One must admit that it applies here, much more than in Warsaw, Paris, or Boston.”

How refreshingly different are Tyrmand’s impressions from Simone de Beauvoir’s in America Day by Day (1954), an account of the four months she spent touring the U.S. in 1947. Imagine her at a Rotary Club meeting, a wet blanket ranting about capitalism and the bourgeoisie. On the day she arrives in Houston, de Beauvoir deploys the pre-packaged, Faulknerized perceptions she had long before setting foot in Texas: “This is the land of wealth and misery, a luxuriant and cruel human land. Here and there, amid fecund solitude [?], stands a hut or a group of dilapidated huts; on the threshold, sometimes black faces, sometimes white ones—the poor whites of the south whose wretched lives are described by Steinbeck and Caldwell.” I don’t recall Steinbeck setting any of his fiction in the South, and Caldwell’s novels are comic books. Her taste in literature is almost as dubious as her taste in boyfriends. The parade of platitudes continues:

“In the absence of cockfights, a professor takes me to a wrestling match after my lecture; this may not be especially Texan, but at least it’s typically American. We arrive toward the end of the match in a huge sports arena filled with a delirious crowd. The women shout `Kill him! Kill him!’ in raucous voices. In the ring the wrestlers confront each other with looks of bestial hatred, studiously imitating the stance and snarl of King Kong.”

Before she leaves the city, de Beauvoir really gets insulting: “For the tourist, Houston at night is as gloomy as Buffalo.” De Beauvoir can’t help her snobbery even when talking about things she knows nothing about. Tyrmand understands snobbery: “Europeans prefer Hitchcock to Godard, a good western to boring cinéma d’œil, and Tennessee Williams to Duerrenmatt. Only American snobs maintain that Robbe-Grillet is more interesting than Philip Roth, that Moravia knows life better than Saul Bellow, and that John Ford is childish but Alain Resnais mature.”

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