On the Eve: A Story

On the loveliest of winter mornings in New York City, un enfant de siècle, nearly fifty years old, is walking with a brisk, almost military, purposefulness down Broadway. The clean cold air and the pale blue sky are the best the city has to offer and all the millions who have never held a golf club, ridden a horse, or skied in the mountains have reason to be thankful.

He, Ackermann, moves along with a sort of athleticism of the brain, a refreshing jog of ideas, and a bit of concern for the future of his lungs and arteries. Health is not always easy to maintain because he is living in the gold of his middle age. Cream sauces at the banquet table, the velvet of sofas on Park Avenue, the roller-coaster elevators in the Waldorf Towers—and Washington, Washington itself. Nevertheless he is impressive as he goes down the blowsy street like a commandant of the regiment with a burning smile, posture erect, medals gleaming. And if his pace is interrupted by the arrogant fleetness of truant youth or the stumbles of shabby old people—no matter.

What is the purpose of your life, Ackermann?

Ah, the parts do not describe the whole, dear interviewer. This life at the desk, in the lecture hall and the magazines, the meetings, the opinions, groupings, alliances, friends and enemies—enemies, there’s always that.

Ackermann is a teacher, a writer, and a critic. Indeed a critic, one of the unfraternal nest of barn owls, men and women, similar, some of the wounded say, to a species known as “nightjars” for their confident, high-pitched cries.

There is more to Ackermann than that. He is a neoconservative, something of a hero of the counterrevolution; and handsome as a minor film star with his strong head and coarse curly hair.

He is nearing West 72nd Street. Every rock and rill is known to him. Here lie the cataracts, the grazing field, the mountainous landscape of his political passage. He has roamed these woods as a boy in the West 90s, lived until a few years ago on Riverside Drive amid the azaleas and forsythia and the speeding of drunken powerboats on the Hudson and the heraldic neon markings of the castles of the Palisades. Here are the shards of his youthful liberal clichés, the chopped-off carrot tops of his adversary assumptions, the shriveled balloons of his generation’s elated predictions of capitalist catastrophe.

Ackermann is writing a memoir, a political autobiography full of messages as blunt and demanding as those of the prophets to the house of Ahab. And yet he wishes it to be here and there nostalgic and poetical since he is first and last a student of literature and, like a Slavophile of the last century, mystical in his native fervors, his passionate, dream-tossed Americanism.

He nears the Hotel Ansonia, a declining Parisian beauty, sun-spangled on the upper windows. And this he knows also from his violin lessons, this bit of old …

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