The Path to the Nest of Spiders
The Watcher and Other Stories
Between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, there was a burst of creative activity throughout the American empire as well as in our client states of Western Europe. From Auden’s Age of Anxiety to Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye to Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky to Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire to Tudor’s ballets and to Bernstein’s enthusiasms, it was an exciting time. The cold war was no more than a nip in the air while the junior senator from Wisconsin was just another genial pol with a drinking problem and an eye for the boys. In that happy time the young American writer was able to reel in triumph through the old cities of Europe—the exchange rate entirely in his favor.
Twenty-six years ago this spring I arrived in Rome. First impressions: Acid yellow forsythia on the Janiculum. Purple wisteria in the Forum. Chunks of goat on a plate in a trattoria. Samuel Barber at the American Academy, talking Italian accurately. Harold Acton politely deploring our barbarous presence in his Europe. Frederick Prokosch at Doney’s, eating cakes. Streets empty of cars. Had there been traffic of any kind, Tennessee Williams would have been planted long since in the Protestant cemetery for he drove a jeep although “I am practically blind in one eye,” he would say proudly, going through the occasional red light, treating sidewalk and street as one.
I visited George Santayana in his hospital cell at the Convent of the Blue Nuns. He wore a dressing gown; Lord Byron collar open at the withered neck; faded mauve waistcoat. He was genial; made a virtue of his deafness. “I will talk. You will listen.” A sly smile; black glittering eyes—he looked exactly like my grandmother.
“Have you met my young new friend Robert Lowell?” I said no. “He will have a difficult life. To be a Lowell. From Boston. A Catholic convert.” The black eyes shone with a lovely malice. “And a poet, too! Oh, dear. Now tell me who is a Mr. Edmund Wilson? He came to see me. I think that he must be very important. In fact, I believe he said that he was very important. You sent me a book, he said. I said that I had not. He said but you did, and got very angry. I tried to tell him that I do not send books. But later I recalled that when we were rescued by the American army—and how glad we were to see you!” A fond glance at me (one still wore khakis, frayed army belt). “A major, a very forceful man, came to see me, with a number of my books. He stood over me and made me sign them…for this one, for that one. I was terrified and did as requested. Perhaps one of those books was for Mr. Wilson.”
The only books in Santayana’s cell were his own—and a set of…
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