gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Classic Barzun

Some memories remain bright despite the passage of time. My trip to San Antonio for the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert is as vivid today as it was while living it. So the passage of a few weeks till I could find this time to preserve parts of the experience with words matters very little.

South Texas temperatures in the low 80s felt mild to residents, but caliente to anyone acclimated to coastal Alaska over the last dozen years. Remembering the summer heat of my childhood and adding a short-sleeved shirt to my long-sleeved wardrobe eased the abrupt transition. Just as fall weather on the Beaufort Sea coast is imprinted on my last trip to Barrow, climate clings to my spring experience of San Antonio.

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Making both weekend flights as far as Seattle, I expected the rest of the connections would be easy and Monday in San Antonio to be free. While waiting in the SEATAC terminal for the Austin flight, I took advantage of the free WiFi to post a reply to Eric Robert Morse’s 27 April proposal of a Jacques Barzun Book Club. In essence I said, ‘How about an inaugural meeting tomorrow night in San Antonio?’

Eric’s affirmative answer came in just twenty minutes, but I’d already shut down my devices. By the time I landed in Austin and boarded Amtrak, he’d come up with a great location perched above the city’s Riverwalk: the Citrus bar and restaurant in the Hotel Valencia. Just thirteen minutes after I saw Eric’s post about the venue and answered “Perfecto”, Leo Wong posted a freighted question: “You’ll tell the great man about this at the Berlioz and Barzun concert?” By that time, however, I’d left the Facebook site and was climbing into a taxi. So I didn’t see Leo’s question until the next day.

I expected no such opportunity to speak with Barzun, as I’d written to JB’s friend and fellow Berlioz authority Peter Bloom: “I doubt that I’ll get the chance to speak with Jacques. I imagine that many family members and close friends will attend and it would be inconsiderate for me to impose upon the grand old man. Simply attending the concert will spend much of his available energy, I suppose. It will have to be enough to hear Berlioz with Barzun, and lay eyes upon Jacques if I’m lucky.” Instead, the prospect of enjoying face-to-face conversation about Barzun was my sojourn’s delightful lagniappe.

I awoke Monday morning, sipped some coffee, and turned on the computer, wondering how to reply to Leo’s Facebook query. First I opened email and discovered something stronger than caffeine. A brief note from Leo contained this potent sentence: “Mrs. Barzun wants you to say hello to them and to attend the little party afterwards.” What a wonderful shock! My heart raced, believe it or not, like a teenager whose crush has just agreed to a date.

That Monday held other surprises. Whether walking to Rivercenter or dropping off a suit at the cleaner’s, I felt a deep contentment. Rather than euphoria I enjoyed a continuous feeling of rightness about it all: the improbable trip, the chance to “talk Jacques” that evening, and the opportunity to meet the Barzuns the following night. Almost twenty years earlier, in my first letter to Professor Barzun, I confessed a desire to shake his hand so I could say that I had once touched greatness. Since then, and before then, it has been a common experience to encounter blank looks when mentioning my favorite author. Any discussion that followed could only be rudimentary. Here, however, I was in the right place, at the right time, and among the right people for real conversation. I found myself looking forward to the inaugural meeting of the Barzun Book Club every bit as much as the audience with Jacques the next night.

The stroll from my hotel to the Valencia was delightful. The sun that still would be high in an Alaskan sky just five weeks from the summer solstice was dipping toward the Texas horizon. I entered from East Houston Street, climbed a flight of stairs, and glanced into the bar and restaurant for anyone resembling the working author of Mr. Morse’s Facebook avatar. Just one party of four sat in the dining room and the hostess did not see his name among the reservations. So I repaired to the bar for a pint of ice water poured by a genial bartender. Seeing the frequent glances I cast over my shoulder toward the hostess station, he agreed to help with the lookout. When asked the natural question about the reason for my travel I told him about the symphony’s “Berlioz and Barzun” concert. Still in his early thirties, he hadn’t heard of the author whose last bestseller made headlines a dozen years ago.

An older hotel guest took her seat a couple of stools down. She greeted the barkeep by name and chatted with him for a minute while I cooked up an analogy. A waitress still in her twenties had stepped up to the bar’s server station just to my left. As the bartender filled her order I asked who she thought was today’s handsomest actor. You can tell that I’m not making this up because she named Jason Bateman and Johnny Depp. I asked whether she had seen any of Paul Newman’s movies. She had not, but the bartender remembered the Oscar winning actor from “The Color of Money” (with Tom Cruise). The lady to my right recalled a younger Fast Eddie Felson in “The Hustler” (1961) and other films. Her smile and gleaming eyes were the best recommendation imaginable for a classic movie hunk. Reputations fade when audiences change, as Barzun often points out, but can be restored with the kind of appreciative critical attention he gave to Berlioz.


Looking again for Eric Morse without success, I sat back down at the bar and ordered a Shiner Bock. My next shot would be with a smartphone.

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3 thoughts on “Classic Barzun

  1. “My heart raced, believe it or not, like a teenager whose crush has just agreed to a date.” Classic. It’s funny that a man so old can make us feel so young!

    Wonderful account so far.

  2. You are so awesome! I don’t believe I’ve truly read through a single thing like
    this before. So great to find someone with some genuine
    thoughts on this topic. Really.. many thanks for starting this
    up. This web site is one thing that’s needed on the internet, someone with a bit of originality!

    • You are too kind, sir. I give you credit for persistence, though. The reverse chronological order of the blog format makes for a herky-jerky storyline. There is something better to be done about Barzun’s bibliography. In the meantime, may I recommend going to the source of my refreshment? There is great fun and good sense to be found in a Barzun bestseller that turns sixty this year, God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words; the opening scene looks out from a railroad sleeper car. His greatest books appear at the head of every page of this website. Thank you for the compliment.

Responses welcomed. Courtesy appreciated.

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