Voices: A Memoir
In August 1939, I crossed the border from France into Italy. At thirteen I was already Henry James’s passionate pilgrim; and the principal object of my pilgrimage was those remnants of the Roman empire which I had come to know so well from that glorious film The Last Days of Pompeii, not to mention its Plautine counterpart, the sympathetic Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals: a thousand compelling celluloid images complemented by the texts of Tales from Livy and Suetonius’ mind-boggling gossip.
At the train’s first stop in Italy—Ventimiglia?—fascist guards gave the fascist salute just as they had done in all those newsreels where Hitler and Mussolini were perpetual Gog and Magog to our days, grotesque cinematic fictions soon to break out of the honey-odored darkness of the art-deco Translux theaters and become real-life monsters in spades.
Yet on my first trip down the Italian peninsula, in the company of a group of schoolboys and masters, I seldom looked out the train’s windows. I was reading a Tauchnitz edition of The Seven Who Fled by Frederic Prokosch. For the next week I was in two places at once. I was in the Rome that I had so long imagined. I was also fleeing across an Asia that had been entirely imagined by Prokosch. One hot, airless August morning, as I walked up the Via Tritone and into the Piazza Barberini, I realized that I was, simultaneously, in the desert southwest of Urga and in prewar (yes, we knew it was prewar then) Rome, facing the Bristol Hotel, where lived, unknown to me, another writer that I was soon to read, George Santayana, whose The Last Puritan was to have much the same revelatory effect on me as the romantic eroticism of The Seven Who Fled.
From the ages of seventeen to twenty I was in the American army. Wherever I was stationed—at least in the United States—I would go to the post library and look up Prokosch. In the years since I first discovered him he had published three more novels. He was something of a cult in the army; and on the outside, too. During the summer of 1945 I was on leave at East Hampton, Long Island. I had finished my first novel. I had another six months to serve in the army.
I cannot remember how I met Prokosch but one day there he was on the beach. Somehow it had never occurred to me that the two fascinating words that made up his name might actually belong to a living person, aged thirty-seven. It is true that I had looked carefully at the photographs on the dust jackets. But one might just as well have been looking at pictures of Byron. Certainly the dust-jacket biographies were brief and uninformative. He seemed to spend a lot of time in Europe; and that was it. Now there he was on the white beach, a dark-haired, black-eyed man, who looked more like a …