Chance meetings

This really should have been a Tangents article.

A couple of years ago, Tangents would have been for several reasons the perfect forum in which to rave about Rachel Cohen’s A chance meeting: intertwined lives of American writers and artists (Vintage).  The book explores the moments or points at which pairs or trios of artists’ and writers’ lives intersected or gently touched against each other and in so doing it becomes a celebration of literature, art, photography, and cinema, as well as of the common ideas connecting their forms and the lives of their makers.  Then there is the felicity – almost certainly unknown on the author’s part – of its echo of (the group) Josef K’s finest moment, and its probably known and knowing nod to a Brief encounter-esque sense of romance; for Rachel Cohen’s book is as much about what is left unsaid as about what history records as having been said.  Its acceptance and understanding that writers come in all shapes and sizes, that some write of a life of adventure in snatched moments between one escapade or assignation and the next, and others form adventure from a solitary life of sedentary reflection, is the literary equivalent of the stuff in which Tangents dealt over its ten year history.

In truth, beyond the shared title, there’s not much to link Rachel Cohen’s A chance meeting with Josef K’s ‘Chance meeting’, other than the somewhat deliberate circumstance of individual taste, and the suggestive nature of the song’s lyric, reprising the tone of David Lean’s film and Noel Coward’s screenplay:

‘The red sky behind you
The feeling you’ve been here before
You lived in the past dear
With things we all gave up then
I met you again there
But this time it weren’t for real’

But connections spark and snake in all directions as you read, inevitably going beyond the ones that Cohen herself makes, or gently presents without comment, like Willa Cather meeting Flaubert’s niece, and writing up the encounter in an essay called “A chance meeting”, or the title of the novel written by one of her subjects, W.D. Howells, A chance acquaintance.  Mention of Joseph Cornell will necessarily stir the attention of any fan of the Clientele’s music.  The story Cohen tells is this:

In 1943, Joseph Cornell wrote to Marianne Moore to thank her for some small amount of praise for a collage of his illustrating a story in an arts magazine.  The salutation was held up by an armadillo, armoured animals exerting a fascination for Moore displayed in her poetry, and Cornell wrote that her words were ‘the only concrete reaction I’ve had so far, and they satisfy and affect me profoundly.’  Cornell was voicing the gratitude that a deliberately lonely artist starved of reaction suffers through long years of obscurity.  His inclination was to fall in love with anyone who paid him attention, all the more so because it was someone he admired.  It led to an exchange of gently romantic letters, and to a meeting, though whether strictly speaking you could call it a chance one is debateable.  Of the meeting itself nothing can be said but that Moore saw Cornell’s basement workshop and his boxes-in-progress.  But Rachel Cohen gives us the tenor of their almost exclusively epistolary relationship and describes presents Cornell sent by post (a valentine of worm-work paper and an ancient book of rare animals), treading softly through the facts to offer from inside each story telling perspectives such as her notion that ‘people very often sent things to Marianne Moore in the hopes of getting back the language with which to talk about them, almost as if they were sending specimens to a zoological expert in order to find out the precise genus and Latin name.’

Along with three dozen other such encounters between writers, artists, photographers, thinkers, critics (and Charlie Chaplin), the book also narrates the second and third meetings between Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, which rested on Duchamp answering a phone call by chance.  Duchamp gives Cornell a present, perfect in its symbolism: ‘He had picked up a red-and-yellow glue carton that said “strength” on one side and, admiring the American phrase, had written “gimme” above it and then signed the whole “Marcel Duchamp,” dated Christmas 1942.’

Cohen’s book is full of such anecdotal gifts, but it is also strong on the way art forms and their purveyors rub off on (and up against) each other, and on the artistic urge which drives their creations, their lives, their relationships with the people to whom they are drawn and the ones from whom they retreat.  With its contextualised counsel from one writer or artist to another, it becomes a creative primer, and a caution against the wasting away of talent.

Carefully chosen photographs inform the text.  Richard Avedon’s 1960 picture of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and dancer Merce Cunningham is terrific; the laughing trio look like a particularly joyful early 1980s New York indie band.  Cohen’s description of the daguerreotype of Henry James Senior and Junior – ‘disturbing in the ghostly aliveness of its subjects’ – also stands for her own book.  She makes what must have been painstaking research seem effortless, stitching it into the whole so that you barely notice the thread binding the material together, and all without a footnote in sight.  There is empathy with all of her subjects, but not always sympathy –  for example, she has little time for the shellac vanity of Katherine Anne Porter.

Neither does she make more of the connections than there is.  Beyond the intrinsic pleasure she presents readers, she concentrates on her essential job, which is to make them want to go away and read the books of those of whom they were previously unaware; in my case William Dean Howells and Sarah Orne Jewett, the lesser known works of Mark Twain and Willa Cather, and maybe even Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs.  But she still allows me to draw the line at Gertrude Stein, and set me imagining the context of meetings that happened between artists of my own cultural acquaintance.  I’ve often wondered whether – as well as serve coffee to Thomas Mann when working in a dining hall – the young Jack Kerouac really did pass Thomas Wolfe on Brooklyn Bridge in a ‘raging blizzard’, as he reports in Vanity of Duluoz, and whether Wolfe might have taken the young football star for a drink if Kerouac had mustered the courage to speak to him.

In White bicycles: making music in the 1960s Joe Boyd writes of playing Nick Drake to John Cale, and of the amazed and excited Cale going round to see the young singer there and then, a seemingly improbable meeting of the confident Welshman and the diffident Englishman which the very next day resulted in the recording of ‘Northern sky’ and ‘Fly’.  The fleshed-out story behind an easily missed credit on the sleeve of Bryter later.

These connections, both real in terms of lives touching each other, and imagined, in the sense of the artistic repercussions of such encounters, are made of much the same stuff that informs A chance meeting.  And any regular readers of Tangents who have ventured into these obscure parts are guaranteed to enjoy it as much as I did.  Or your money back.

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