Authors: Benjamin Markovits
The Syme Papers
Either Side of Winter
A Quiet Adjustment
If I could explain at length the
causes which have contributed to increase this perhaps
temperament of mine â this Melancholy which hath made me a bye-word â nobody would wonder â â but this is impossible without doing much mischief. â â I do not know what other men's lives have been â but I cannot conceive anything more strange than some of the earlier parts of mine â â I have written my memoirs â but omitted
consequential & important
parts â from deference to the dead â to the living â and to those who must be both.
Two years ago, on my way through New York, I called Steve Heinz and left a message for him on his answering machine. Could he meet me in the city in the next couple weeks, for lunch or coffee or an early drink? I suggested a few places convenient for the train to Westchester. Heinz had just been promoted to principal at the high school where I used to teach, and I expected to learn from him a certain amount of insider gossip about former colleagues and friends. Ten years had passed since I shared an office with him â my first real taste of working life. I drew from it a pretty general picture of what adulthood was like, what New York was like, what my own life
have been like, and then quit. How much curiosity could I decently show about the characters of a place where I spent nine months a decade before? Still, this time I wanted to ask him a few questions about one of those characters, and I guessed he probably knew which one.
It was the week after Labor Day, when traffic and business suddenly return to the city, as bright and colorful in their way as the onset of fall a few months later amongst the trees of Central Park. The school year had started, and Heinz made some difficulties about finding a time. I wondered if something I'd written had offended him. One of my books was set on a campus very much like the one he presided over, and the school's reputation had suffered recently, in the gossip columns, for the way it handled the firing of another teacher who had based a novel on his experience there. (In my day maybe half the English department, and a quarter of the history department, were working on novels; I was just one of a crowd.) It's not always easy having for a local paper the
New York Times
. Such incidents get blown out of proportion, and the angry back and forth between the supporters and opponents of this guy's book had filled the Metro section for several weeks and had even made its way onto the cover of
New York Magazine
. Heinz might have thought I was hoping to stir up the same kind of publicity â not for my old novel, which had passed into silence painlessly enough, but for a new publication, which I had come into town to promote.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. A few years previously, a man named Peter Pattieson, a colleague of Heinz's â an old colleague of mine â had died. (There's no real point in covering up the name of this school. Anyone who lives in New York will recognize it at once, and anyone who doesn't won't care. It's the Horatio Alger School in Riverdale, known familiarly, to much of the faculty if not the students themselves, as Algiers.) Peter was one of Algiers' true eccentrics. In the first place, his real name wasn't Pattieson, it was Sullivan. He was the only teacher I ever heard of who taught under a nom de plume. By the time I came on the scene, he had more or less stopped talking to everyone in the department office. He occupied a little spare room next to the utility closet, which contained a desk and a chair and a small couch and used to be called the Winter Palace by ironic English masters. It was a place they could retire to, to read during a free hour, or catch up on sleep, or meet quietly with a student. But once Peter took it over, everyone else stopped coming â out of respect, I would like to say, but respect isn't quite the right word.
Many of my colleagues, especially the older ones, treated him the way you might treat a homeless man on the subway. Not unkindly, but with the deference you show to someone who isn't particularly clean. Cleanliness, in fact, was never Peter's strong suit. He always wore the same black chalk-stained smoking jacket to class; and his beard, which was both wild and sparse, was larded in the morning with the crumbs of his breakfast and stained in the afternoon by the grease of his lunch. But if he smelled of anything, it was the sweetness of pipe tobacco. For his part, Peter tended to avoid other people as systematically as they avoided him, and for the whole of my admittedly brief tenure at Horatio Alger, I never heard Steve Heinz exchange a single word with him. They were both very popular teachers, and once or twice I saw the strain between them showing up among their students in the cafeteria. Peter's followers were easy to spot. They dressed like him, both the boys and the girls, and tended to carry around in their back pockets those pretty Faber editions of whatever poet Peter happened to be preaching from at the time.
At one point, very late in the spring, I took advantage of the privilege accorded to new teachers and sat in on one of Peter's classes. After that a sort of friendship grew up between us. We used to go for walks during our free period around the wide shady neighborhood in which the school was located, and quote poetry at each other. Nothing could embarrass Peter, least of all pretension. He had an extraordinary gift for recitation, which could be set off by the slightest of associations. I remember once, on our way back to class, seeing a young history teacher (who had managed to annoy him) walking in high heels across the uneven ground of the football field to her car. Something absurd about the way she moved made Peter whisper to me:
Oh fat white woman whom nobody loves
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves?
In fact, the teacher in question was slender and rather pretty; but for the rest of the year, whenever I saw her, I heard in my mind's ear Peter's hesitant soft Irish accent, which sounded more like a cough than a voice, repeating those lines.
He died in 2006 and I didn't make it to the funeral â one of the things I hoped Heinz could tell me about. Later, a package arrived for me in London from Peter's estate. It contained a phonebook-thick slab of manuscript papers, typed (on a typewriter) and Tipp-Exed by a careful hand and printed on a mishmash of stationery. I took them into my study and arranged them as I do my own papers, on my knees, laying them out against the checked covering of a fold-out sofa. My daughter had recently been born and served as my excuse for missing his funeral â her crying reached me through the Victorian floorboards. But then I began to read, and Peter's voice returned to me, âmumbling, reluctant, low, compelling,' as I had heard it for the first time a decade before in the quiet of his classroom. I remember thinking, with a half-smile, oh, he's talking about Byron again, and being touched by his consistency. It was hard for me to imagine him reliably dead.
Within a few hours I had separated the manuscripts into two complete novels and three large unconnected sections of a third. I figured Peter had probably bequeathed them to me because he had seen my name in the
New York Times
. (By that stage, I had begun to publish a little, two novels, a few short stories, some reviews.) There was something flattering about the whole business. Look at me, I thought, with my wife and daughter a flight of stairs away and my own books, bearing my name, on my own shelves. Peter, so far as I knew, had never married and had never mentioned to me the existence of any lovers. One of the reasons I let the correspondence lapse when I stopped teaching, one of the more shameful reasons, is that I suspected his affection for me had a sexual element, which I never pretended to classify or define. But it seemed easier, when he wrote me, not to write back. The guilt of that was mixed in with everything else. Anyway, and for whatever reason, I decided to do what I could for his novels and felt suddenly flushed with the conviction, unusual in a writer, that I might be in a position to help somebody.
My editor, Lee Brackstone, is much more of a Romantic, in the old-fashioned, capitalized sense of the word, than I ever was. The idea of a dead, neglected New York private school teacher appealed to him at once. We argued a little about the books themselves.
appeared to be the earliest piece. Peter didn't date his work, and the copies I inherited had clearly been typed around the same time. You could practically see him wearing down the ribbon as he went, page after page. (I once saw him type, finger by finger, his end-of-year student reports. It couldn't have taken any less than three months of eight hours a day to produce the wedge that had come in the post.) At any rate,
struck me as immature â clever in a first-novelish kind of way, but too plot-heavy and conceit-driven. The kind of novel a young man might write during his free hours, on weekends, and over the long summers, both as a respite from the grind of high-school teaching and as a way of launching himself clear of it. The kind of novel you write when you still hope that writing is a way of making money.
Lee agreed but wanted to publish it first anyway. He had rescued my own first novel from the âlong grass of neglect,' and the misery of endless redrafting, shortly before my thirtieth birthday. He was not much older at the time; it was one of the first things he offered for. I have sometimes felt in his company like nothing but a kind of middleman between a certain mild strain of private, comfortable disappointment and the public appetite for it, such as it is. Whatever âstar' quality the business of professional writing depends on is possessed by him. In Peter's case, middleman describes my role exactly. As soon as Lee got his hands on the papers, I discovered how little real control I had over their publication. He insisted on bringing out
first, in spite of my hesitations; and followed it up a year later with
A Quiet Adjustment
, the second and final completed manuscript from the stack I had inherited on Peter's death. The best I could do was leave the novels alone and let them stand or fall according to their strengths. But a part of my resistance to publishing
first was the fact that
A Quiet Adjustment
would be judged in its light; it needed to be judged in its own light.
Something had happened to me since Peter died, and the task of publishing his unpublished work deepened the effect of it. I had a mortgage and a daughter, and the pressure to support the cost of each persuaded me in the end to accept the kind of job I would once have despised myself for doing. I began to teach creative writing. I stayed up at night correcting other people's manuscripts and commuted in the morning, an hour each way in the car, to an office, where I sketched out new ways of inspiring my students to do the thing I wasn't doing any more: creative writing. Then, sometimes twice a day, for two-hour sessions, I stood in front of a room full of kids and talked about it. Of course, the burden of Peter's inheritance didn't help, a burden that seemed larger than just the bundle of loose pages I had somehow committed myself to transforming â into books, those magical things. I had a duty to him, not only because he was my friend, but because I had gotten published and he hadn't, and there wasn't any difference between us that could justify this fact.
came out while I was staying with my in-laws for a few months. Our house had a leaky roof, and we were taking the chance to renovate the kitchen as well. I remember feeling surprised at how nervously I opened the papers each Saturday morning â maneuvering my way to the review section before anyone could offer it to me with a significant air. It wasn't my book; the guy whose book it was was dead. But still I suffered the familiar heartache of anticipation until I had gone through all the papers looking for his name. Then I spent the rest of the day arguing in my head with each reviewer, the sort of protracted internal conversation teenage boys have with girls they haven't yet dared to talk to in real life.