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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Grand Surprise: The Journals Of Leo Lerman

Submitted by on January 26, 2014 – 10:26 AM5 Comments

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I read about Leo Lerman's journals in The New Yorker, I think.

I hadn't known anything about the longtime Condé Nast writer and editor before, but he had me before the numbered pages even began with his description of bare winter branches: "[S]uddenly I was rent and bereft by the trees, stark against high, thin, pale sky" (xxviii). I've felt just that way so many times, looking out a car window after sundown, in January in the mountains, and feeling a longing I can't explain for a thing I can't point to.

Lerman kept the journals mostly to keep his sanity, no doubt, but the selections in The Grand Surprise — just a fraction of the total diaries, and still a brick at 600-ish pages — were meant to be the basis of a novel, never written but constantly fretted over as the symbol of his failure as A Great Writer. It's still something writers struggle with, the idea that, if you haven't heaved up at least one full-length fiction ms., what you do doesn't count, and it's funny how you read prose as elegant and precise as Lerman's and dismiss his concern that it's not "real" somehow, but you have the same worries about your own. Not that my prose is either of those things; I'm just saying. Lerman's description of the Damage & Destruction film made by the military to document bomb tests; his sketch of an aged Marlene Dietrich as "a hank of hair, swollen legs" (422) — it "counts." The astuteness of the comparison of Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe doesn't need the aegis of literary fiction to resonate:

[T]o become this American Proust — I think impossible for him. He has broken himself up on this wheel. … In a sense, he is Marilyn Monroe. The Strasbergs [Actors Studio] tried to educate her into something she could not be. (433; brackets editor Stephen Pascal's)

Sometimes it's a tossed-off phrase that contains multitudes ("butternut and coonskin-hat America," 501), other times a bitchy aside (on the society array at the Huffingtons' wedding in the eighties: "For this Lily Bart killed herself?", 560). Still other times, it's an impenetrable attendance list of European ballerinas and lesser lights by whom Maria Callas was offended, but it's easy enough to skip those entries, to page past a meditation on Manet and find this note on the ways we "edit" people who have passed away: "The irritating qualities of the living become marks of individuality, and sometimes ciphers of genius, when those who have inflicted them upon us are dead" (35).

It's an entertaining peek into the New York of decades past; like I said, some slow bits where the myriad footnotes explaining the now-anonymous players slow things down, but any given entry reveals itself to the individual reader as essential or not pretty quickly. It'll take a while to finish, but it's a thoughtful life, recorded; that's how that goes.

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5 Comments »

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Sigh…it's so hard, SO hard, to convince ourselves that our life, just as it is, is "real", especially if creativity is a part of our makeup.

    (side note: Willow and Xander!)

  • scout1222 says:

    Willow and Xander was the first thing I noticed in that photograph.

  • kategm says:

    I haven't read the whole book yet but can I just say that I love the photo up top– especially the pen and Willow and Xander photo?
    (I pick weird things to notice).

  • kategm says:

    I also just checked this out of the library so I could finish it (ran out of time last time). I sympathize with Lerman for the reasons Sars mentioned:
    "It's still something writers struggle with, the idea that, if you haven't heaved up at least one full-length fiction ms., what you do doesn't count, and it's funny how you read prose as elegant and precise as Lerman's and dismiss his concern that it's not "real" somehow, but you have the same worries about your own."

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    ran out of time last time

    With the utmost empathy: hee. This is one of those books you have to forgive yourself for skimming in spots. ("…She said, determined to read every boring goddamn word of this John Wilkes Booth, Ack-Tore book." When will I learn.)

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