What do House & Garden, P.G. Wodehouse, Boethius, Mario Praz, the Titanic, Ground Zero, the Addams Family,Vanessa Bell, World War 1 military hospitals, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Frieda Kahlo, Freud, British Inland Revenue, Martha Stewart, Emily Post, Vita Sackville-West, Goldie Hawn, Ingmar Bergman, Cyclone Katrina, the Lady of Shalott, I Love Lucy, Muriel Spark, John Banville, Gianni Versace, Ronald Firbank, Edgar Allan Poe and the Pet Shop Boys have in common?
Answer: they all appear in the wondrous weaving that is Terry Castle’ s essay Home Alone. It’s an essay, supposedly, about her obsession with interior-decorating magazines, and it is, but it’s about you and me as well, and the crazy way we live.
Castle is another of Gert’s LRB favourites and one of the best essayists going. She makes it look so easy, even though she’s on record (frequently) berating herself for her lack of talent and general lumpishness.
Here you’ll find the celebrated 2005 essay Desperately seeking Susan in which Castle shows us Susan Sontag, in a crowded street in Palo Alto, demonstrating how she evaded sniper fire in Sarajevo:
Lickety-split, she was off, dashing in a feverish crouch from one boutique doorway to the next, white tennis shoes a blur, all the way down the street to the restoration hardware and the Baskin-Robbins store. Five or six perplexed Palo Altans stopped to watch as she bobbed zanily in and out, ducking her head, pointing to imaginary gunmen on rooftops and gesticulating wildly at me to follow. (94)
The essay is an unforgettable portrait of Sontag in all her magnificence and ridiculousness, but just as interesting is Castle herself, highly intelligent and generous- spirited, formidably learned, but basically, as she sees it, clueless:
At best, our relationship was rather like the one between Dame Edna and her feeble sidekick Madge…. (92)
The title piece The Professor, is another tour de force, about the teenage Castle’s love-affair with one of her female teachers, a creature of such monstrous ego, conniving, and moral nihilism it leaves you gasping. The smile was charming; the eye contact warm and intense; the alienation absolute. The Professor did serious damage to the vulnerable young Castle, and Castle knows it; even so she can’t help seeing the funny side, can’t help admiring the Professor’s sheer chutzpah. Years later Castle is in a packed lobby at a conference:
I was suddenly assailed, over all the hubbub, by the ear-shredding peal of a whistle. The whistle was one of those heavy-duty ones – the kind they give you if you are a Super Bowl referee – and someone was blowing on it forcefully, at regular screechy intervals. Alternating with every blast came a boomy cry, only slightly less loud: WHEELCHAIR! WHEELCHAIR!
It is the Professor, who has developed some sort of wasting condition and seems to be enjoying every moment of it. She still has her characteristic look: “that of someone who had just received a best-in-show ribbon at the County Fair. Her begonias had obliterated everybody else’s in the flower competition. Left them riddled. Ripped-up leaves and bits of pink and purple petal everywhere on the ground. Major vandalism. Fuckin-fantastic!” (335)
You can say that again! What an fuckin-fantastic writer.
* This is an extension of a post from the very early days of this blog.