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In Memoriam

Illustration: © copyright by Tobias Tak 2017 from his book, Canciones, published by Scratchbooks, Amsterdam. Tobias transformed twenty poems by Francisco Garcia Lorca into a series of richly detailed and inventive ink drawings.
 

When friends die, it is a great sorrow. It does not matter if their death was sudden or expected, a release from pain and torment, or a peaceful passing. They are gone and the emptiness we feel is deep and long. At funerals and memorials loved ones rise to speak and tell their stories, often stories we have never heard before. We embrace other friends and partners, family members we have never met or know very well. We are all weeping.


At the turn of the New Year, two friends of mine died. I met both of them late in our lives, admired them both, and felt an abiding affection for them both. They did not know each other. One lived in New York, the other in Amsterdam and London. They were multi-talented, in the flow of their creative lives, connected and compassionate, kind and well-mannered.


I met Constance George through her dear friend, Stephanie Stone, who had once baby-sat for my daughter. I reconnected with Stephanie when I moved to Washington Heights and she introduced me to Connie. When I decided to stage—rather than read—excerpts from my book, Nomads, at the Cornelia Street Cafe, Connie offered to direct and act. Stephanie also performed what I had not realized were dramatic pieces. It was a thrill to work collaboratively with both of them over several weeks. Connie's enthusiasm and professionalism were inspiring. Most of her friends did not know she was sick. In fact, the last I'd heard she was planning to travel to Berlin and work in the theater there. In my imagination, she is there, singing and dancing, writing plays, making new friends, and cherishing them.


I met Tobias Tak through my friend, Norma Cohen. She wrote from London to say he was coming to New York to visit his artist-sister, Elise, who has lived in America for a while, and it would be wonderful if we could meet; she knew we would like each other. Tobi and Elise are Dutch, the children of Holocaust survivors, as am I, so we immediately had a point of reference for our childhood memories. Tobi was an esteemed tap dancer and dance teacher --Norma had taken lessons from him—but he also wrote and illustrated graphic novels and exhibited and published his work in Holland. I had an opportunity to critique one of these books, still in draft, and make a suggestion or two. Studying the relationship of images to words was new for me, and a welcome challenge. The story was complex and evocative. What a talent! But even more importantly were the kinetic conversations I always had with Tobi, whether on email, or the telephone. We never saw each other that much, but it didn't matter. Like so many solid friendships, we always picked up where we left off. I shall miss our discussions and his life-affirming spirit.


Dear Connie, Dear Tobi, rest in peace.

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Why I Still Love Anthony Trollope

 

I've been reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, for the past several weeks, how many I cannot exactly say. I started reading it electronically, then got a Modern Library edition out of the library. Gorgeous paper, big print, I thought that would help me along. I know that once I start skimming or reading a book backwards that I'm in trouble. I was on page 560 of 800 something when I started reading the last chapter. I was pleased that I'd made it that far.


I didn't read Middlemarch until a couple of years ago though I'd been intending to read it for a very long time. But intention is not enough. I finally succumbed to pressure from various writer/feminist friends, the same writer/feminist friends who recommended Daniel Deronda.


I have written about Middlemarch here so won't repeat myself; it's a masterpiece. Daniel Deronda is not. I had to plow and scythe my way through the reeds of George Eliot's formidable intellect, every over-long sentence a challenge to my patience. That poor author had something to prove—to everyone. Think of the life she lead in the aristocrat's Victorian England, the women in long dresses and flouncy hair-bobs, the men in their top hats smoking cigars at their clubs, marriage the only aspiration for those still-corseted, constrained women. But not Mary Evans, aka George Eliot. She was smart, she didn't want to marry, she lived with a married man, she became a famous writer in her own lifetime, her books are now classics revered by academics and intellectuals and any woman who can identify with her self-conscious, struggling female characters. In her time, Eliot would show up at the theater where her emancipated presence would cause a stir, or an uproar. Young women lined up to genuflect to her, and she would bless them, I presume, or say an encouraging word or two. At least I hope she did.


Despite all I know of George Eliot, and the admiration I feel for her as a writer and a Victorian free-thinking woman—if that isn't an oxymoron—I hit a roadblock with Daniel Deronda. Perhaps it is the "Jewish" subplot, which most agree is awkward and sentimental. Perhaps it's an insistence that we pay attention to this strange subplot. Eliot was a scholar of the world's religions and offended by anti-Semitism. Kudos to that. Or, perhaps, it's the prose itself which feels blunt and immovable, an obstacle to empathy.


The emotional experience of reading a work of fiction is important to me. Am I engaged or detached? Does the author let me in or keep me at arm's length with convoluted overly-written sentences? Alas, my dear George Eliot, Anthony Trollope remains my favorite Victorian writer. Straightforward, precise, progressive in his politics, a champion of women, every one of his novels I have read is accessible to a contemporary reader. I'd definitely invite him to dinner. If it were a potluck dinner, I imagine he'd bring something artisanal and tasty. He'd hug me as he entered and as he departed. Not so George Eliot. She'd bring me one of her books, inscribed to me personally, admonish me to read it cover to cover and to write my own book. A mentor. Kudos to that, too. We would then meet for tea and I would have to explain what happened at page 560. Or would I?

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