Category Archives: Dumbarton Oakes

My life’s work apparently

Me when I first began work on Sabra the Astonishing.

Me when I first began work on Sabra the Astonishing.

Well, I’ve finally finished Sabra the Astonishing, thirty seven years after I first put pen to legal pad in the carrels of the austere library of the Dumbarton Oaks Institute for Byzantine Studies, where I was, as it turns out, masquerading as a serious scholar. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation on the life of Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. Put off by the need to stick to known facts, however, increasingly obsessed with Marian visions, in particular,  the case of Bernadette Soubirous, and, not to put too fine a point on it,  unraveling, I began instead to write a novel, which I described decades later in an application to the Ontario Arts Council thusly:

Sabra the Astonishing is the story of a teenage girl who sees an apparition which she takes to be the Virgin Mary . . . which it most definitely is not. Indeed, it is something far more sinister. Set in the sixties in the tobacco country of North Carolina, the novel explores the phenomenon of Marian visions and the steamier underside of Catholic excess.”

The novel went through a number of iterations, the most recent of which was completed twenty five years ago. My agent circulated it; no takers. My ex once described it less than kindly as, “bloated,” and, in retrospect, he was right. Sabra the Astonishing  erred on the side of excess; rather like the obese fellow traveler who sits next to you in coach, it had a propensity to ooze.  Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that the manuscript contained some of my best writing and the fact that it has languished in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet for so many years has been a source of  melancholy for me. Unpublished novels render one wistful. They are like dead babies; you can’t help but mourn them, to wonder what might have been had they been allowed to live.

This past year, I decided to have one more go at it, so I pulled out the manuscript and had a critical read.  This is what looking at a novel written by a young woman through an old woman’s eyes revealed:

  • Characters that don’t belong. I quickly realized that I had to kill off one of the lead characters; though darling, he was absolutely extraneous to the plot. (Those of you who follow this blog will have been privy to Lorenzo Da Silvio’s murder over several posts, each purporting to be the last.   I couldn’t help it; he was everywhere.)
  • Time and Place: Despite the fact that the novel takes place on Easter Monday, 1963, I had done nothing to set it in the period. I’ve now spent the last six months researching what training bra Sabra would have been wearing, what episode of Wagon Train might have played that night, and what brand of tranquilizers were vegetizing her mother. Thank God for the Internet. A related disconnect was the fact that, although Sabra’s family owns a big tobacco company and it’s the sixties, no one smokes! I addressed this problem by making everybody smoke all the time. One even dies of lung cancer.
  • Acknowledging the Zeitgeist: For a book set not forty miles from Greensboro, North Carolina where the lunch counter sit-ins had taken place just three years earlier . . . moreover, for a novel with several black characters, the fact that there was no acknowledgement of the Civil Rights Movement was, well, weird.
me at 60

Me when I finished The Virgin of Ararat.

The young woman was caught up in the story, in  action; the old woman, in context.

All these oversights have now been rectified and I will be sending the novel out again, but under a new title this time – The Virgin of Ararat. I’m doing this in the hopes that any editors who might have rejected it a quarter of a century ago will think it’s a different book altogether. Shhh! Let’s let that be our little secret.

The Year of the Cockroach

cockroachIn 1978 I had a one-year-long junior fellowship at the Dumbarton Oaks Centre for Byzantine Studies in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington D.C. , during the course of which my ex and I were housed in a nearby apartment building otherwise known as the Roach Motel. There are a number of things I remember about that year, which I spent mostly writing a first draft of Sabra the Astonishing, my perennial work-in-progress, all the while pretending to write my PhD thesis on the life and times of Athanasius of Alexandrea.  Yes, I know. Bad. Very Bad.

There are a number of things I remember about that year.

There was the couple next door who, at least three times a week, fought until the wee hours of the morning and, what was particularly annoying, endlessly and stupidly repeated themselves, as in:

“You shut up!”

“No, you shut up!”

“No, YOU shut up!”

Around 2 a.m. I would march out into the hall, bang on their door, and yell, “Will you both PLEASE just shut up!” at which point this noisome twosome, rendered momentary allies by the intervention of a third party, would yell in concert, “No, YOU shut up, you bitch!” “Go to Hell!” “Mind YOUR own business!” “Yeah! Fuck off, why don’t you?”

Dumbarton Oaks

Dumbarton Oaks

Then there was Naomi (her real name), the wife of one of my fellow Fellows.   For some reason I could not fathom, Naomi LOATHED me.  Now I’m at a complete loss when it comes to handling  people whose dislike of me is palpable. Not that I’m actually nice, but I do expend a considerable amount of effort trying to appear nice.

So why did Naomi hate me? Did she know I wasn’t really working on my dissertation all those long hours holed up in the library?  Or was she just one of those Mean Girls, the kind I might have learned to deal with in high school had I ever been truly present while in high school.

In the end I dealt with the problem of Naomi in the same mature and reasoned way I’ve dealt with similar situations my entire adult life: every time I heard her voice in the hall, I ducked into the bathroom and cowered there until I judged the coast to be clear. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in that bathroom. Which begs the question – why was Naomi, who didn’t have a fellowship, prowling around the Institute all day long, terrorizing aspiring novelists?

Then there was the Fellow who shamed me for being so steeped in arcana that I was blissfully unaware of current events. I cannot conjure his face or recall his name, but, entirely because of the scorn he heaped upon me, I bought a subscription to Time Magazine and made a pact with myself that I would read it cover to cover each week – including the sports stories. Thirty six years later, I still subscribe to Time and I still read it cover to cover each week. Now, there will be those among you who say, “Time Magazine! What a terrible rag! You should be reading The Economist!” To you I say, “Next lifetime. The current me is not bright enough to read and digest The Economist and my faculties are growing dimmer by the minute.”

JonestownThe strongest memory I have of that year, however, is of my ex gleefully sprinting around our perpetually Raid perfumed apartment, trying to dust random cockroaches with boric acid; the exterminator, a frequent visitor to the Roach Motel, had explained to him that, since cockroaches are “casual cannibals”, there was a good chance that a roach dusted with boric acid would find itself the dinner of a second roach, resulting in the deaths of both — a kind of two-for-one.   I suppose it empowered my ex,  gave him a sense of purpose, made him feel less helpless in the face of such overwhelming odds.  In the meantime, within the walls and in all the cracks and crevices of the apartment, a gazillion slithery cockroaches roiled and churned.

And that, in a nutshell, was 1978,  my year at  Dumbarton Oaks: novel writing by stealth, BAD neighbors, !NAOMI! and an insecticidal spouse.  Oh, and Jonestown — the cover story of the first issue of Time I ever received.

But not the last.

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