Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Music and Memory, Part 4: The Fat Lady
As a young girl, one of the most exciting things about Christmas was the books my parents gave me each year. While sometimes these gifts expressed my parents' own concerns -- I remember a few years when I received things like The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks and Native Son by Richard Wright -- there were also books that revealed a depth of sensitivity to my growing spirit that was not always apparent in our everyday interactions: The Cloud of Unknowing one year, for example, and a book of Meister Eckhart's sermons. But the best year of all was the one in which they gave me both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Franny and Zooey. I was eleven or twelve that year, and I read both books many times over the next decade or so. Franny in particular was precious to me, so much so that, when my high-school boyfriend lost the copy which I, with an upswelling of feeling, had pressed on him (the same one my parents had given me), he was so worried about my reaction that he bought a new one, dog-eared several dozen pages, rolled it in the dirt, and slammed it in the door a few times before giving it to me (he confessed all of this when we broke up).
Franny and Zooey is a novel in two parts, each of them an eponymous short story originally published in the New Yorker (my father first read "Franny" in the New Yorker as a high-school student, and told me, that Christmas I was twelve, how thrilling he'd found it). Franny Glass, a gifted young actress and college student from a stupendously gifted New York family, is suffering (not unlike Holden Caulfield) from an existential crisis occasioned by the sickening inauthenticity of the culture in which she lives. In order to combat or at least ameliorate it, she has begun the practice of hesychastic prayer, which she's learned about from the anonymous classic The Way of a Pilgrim. She ends up in a state of nervous exhaustion on the sofa of her family's Upper East Side apartment, where her brother Zooey attempts to rally her and send her back out into the world to accomplish her duties in it. She cannot withdraw from it, he tells her, because she has a responsibility to the mysterious Fat Lady, whom he describes as a grotesque, quasi-Southern-Gothic figure sitting on her porch and swatting flies as she listens to the radio. Then he lets her in on a secret: the Fat Lady is "Christ Himself."
When my son was a newborn, I bought an old book of J.D. Salinger criticism from the discard bin at the local library, and read it as I nursed him. I was surprised to discover the tremendous disdain in which the prominent literary critics of the 1950s and 1960s held Salinger and his entire fictional Glass family. The critics were on the defensive -- sneering, for instance, at Zooey's reverence for the disgusting Fat Lady as a self-conscious badge of his and his family's intellectual superiority. Salinger's Glass family is rather too good to be true, but hardly, it struck me, worthy of the spleen heaped upon it by actual flesh-and-blood critics.
Revisiting Salinger, however, brought to my mind a long-forgotten encounter I'd had as a young singer. I was about twenty years old, and was on a subway platform in Brooklyn, waiting for the train to take me to my voice lesson on the Upper West Side. I was clutching my music in my hands -- one of the volumes of the Peters complete songs of Schubert. As I sat on one of the hard wooden benches, a tall, muscular, middle-aged woman approached me and pointed at my music. She tried to talk to me, but I couldn't understand; she was Polish and spoke no English. Then, to my astonishment, she started to cry, pointing at my volume of Schubert and saying, over and over, "beautiful." I was stricken. Who was she? She appeared, like so many Polish immigrant women in New York, to be a charwoman -- had she in fact been a singer? I smiled at her, and tried to say something that might sound consoling, but she just shook her head, weeping, and when the train came, she ran to another car so that our awkward encounter would be severed.
I was troubled by this strange meeting, and for a long time after that, whenever I wanted to give up singing, I would think of the Polish woman on the train. I started to see her as my own Glassian "fat lady," and decided that, if for nothing else, I should keep singing for her, and hope that it would bear fruit in her life in some mysterious way. I wonder where she is now; I pray that she is at peace.
Above: the cover of the French translation of Franny and Zooey. I love the Hopper-esque cover painting. Can anyone make out whether the gent in the picture above Franny's head (for it is Franny) is Kafka?