Thursday, July 2, 2020

“The time just before”

Every so often I’ve tried to track down a passage I read years ago — something to the effect that the time we’re most curious about or enamored of or nostalgic for is the time just before our own. I thought I might have finally found the passage:

The time just before our own entrance into the world is bound to be peculiarly fascinating to us: if we could understand it, we might be able to explain our parents, and hence come closer to persuading ourselves that we know why we are here.
The only problem: this passage appears in “The World in a Very Small Space,” a review by Robert B. Shaw of The Stories of John Cheever, published in the December 23, 1978 issue of The Nation. Was I reading The Nation in 1978? No. Would I somehow have found my way to a 1978 issue years later? That’s doubtful, though I did subscribe to The Nation in the late 1980s. Did I have an interest in John Cheever’s work that would have brought me to this review? Nope. So the search must go on.

This review has a wonderful passage from Cheever’s preface to the collection:
These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like “the Cleveland Chicken,” sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.
There are ample reasons not to miss that long-lost world. But it’s hard to beat the Benny Goodman quartet — or trio. Maybe I should read some John Cheever.

comments: 2

Geo-B said...

I have not been enchanted or nostalgic for the time just before I was born, having been born in the 1940s, which was as vile a time as our world has seen. Almost exactly 10 years before I was born was Kristallnacht. Perhaps, however, we Baby Boomers were a hopeful gesture that things could be better. Not sure we've lived up to that.

Michael Leddy said...

My fascination tends to material culture: “dentifrice,” fountain pens, percolators, rotary-dial telephones, everything I think of as the dowdy world. I can watch a movie from the late ’40s or early ’50s for no other reason than to see the details of daily life. But yes, as I said in the post, there are plenty of reasons not to miss that world, or earlier ones.