What We Failed To Do:
The George Steiner Prize
Philip Davis professor of English literature at Liverpool University, author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, and editor of The Reader, wrote the post below which originally appeared on Moreover. Inspired by George Steiner, who has written a book about the books he never wrote, Philip Davis meditates on his own missteps–those hiccups of betrayal and slips of cowardice. Now he wants your stories, too …
George Steiner had a very good idea when he wrote “My Unwritten Books“–a new book about the seven books he never wrote. The comic possibilities for the rest of us are endless. Only seven, George? I gotta hundred of ‘em. Plus all the other things I never did. I could have been a contender…
What interests me is something more limited: the split-second when something could have happened, or should have been done, and then wasn’t.
Paul Tortelier, with that beautiful face of his, aquiline-expressive, playing the cello in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, some evening in the 1970s. He turned a page of his score and it wouldn’t stay flat. He turned it again, hastily in the pauses, but it turned back on him. Though he addressed it sharply, twice, with his bow, it wouldn’t obey him as the cello would. You could see he was hampered. I could, ten rows back, an unhappy undergraduate helplessly witnessing. Some 20 rows further behind, a tall man got up, walked very quietly but very quickly up the public aisle up to the maestro, and carefully, definitely, folded the page for him into place. It was a functional act, without embarrassment.
As the man did it, Tortelier, still carving out his playing, had time to give him that beautiful look of his, busily man-to-man, while he still continued to play like an angel. I wished I had been the one who dared to help, and for his pains received that private nodded thanks, publicly registered by the rest of us.
Then there was a boy called Seaton in the first year of secondary school. He was one of those who are always in trouble with the teachers. I don’t know why, because he was always okay with me–never unkind, and no way worse than those others who got away with things. He had a thin, slightly ratty face, but his eyes looked at you.
Something he was supposed to have done, one morning, made Ray Graves, the English teacher, utterly furious; I can’t remember what. But I do remember him saying, alarmed, quite loud, that he hadn’t done it, and I knew he hadn’t–that he was hopelessly innocent and paying for previous misdemeanours. I had prestige in that class, more than 40 years ago: I could have said to Mr Graves, who liked me, that Seaton was telling the truth, and should be believed. There was a second’s chance. But I knew Mr Graves was over-committed, and there would be a row. So as you will guess: I shirked it and said nothing. Seaton left after the first year, and even now I am sorry, Seaton. I hear his name, stupidly, every time Macbeth cries to his poor messenger in Act 5:
Seyton – I am sick at heart…
My way of life of life
Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf…
He finishes by listing all that he “must not look to have”.
Another musical moment, another cellist, but an amateur. She was lead cellist in a rough performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. There was a crucial moment: two, three, four, five notes needed as she fought her way down the instrument, note by note. And then, so nearly there, she missed the last crucial one. I thought it was tremendous: I learnt more from her small failure than if Tortelier had performed it with an angel’s ease.
She had a bad car accident a year later, in 1979, I guess. I had never spoken to her, but not forgetting her I learnt of her misfortune by chance–from what turned out to be a mutual friend to whom I happened to describe the performance. I even went with said friend straight after our conversation, to visit her in hospital, as if it was a sign. But when I described my pleasure over the Mendelssohn, including most of all her exasperated error, she said, smiling amidst the bruising and the cuts, “You don’t know much about music, do you?”
I didn’t, but I remember now looking at a picture of Felix Mendelssohn in the junk shop round the corner from the house where my wife and I lived, years later, when we were first married and rather hard up for cash. As part of my home-coming routine, I looked at it for months, on and off, and never bought it, and one day of course it was gone.
And there are thousands more of such moments hidden behind each one, both major and minor: instantly lost opportunities, non-acts of cowardice or betrayal, failures of instinctive imagination.
In the name of More Intelligent Life (or Proust or Hardy), send me one of yours from the list that all of us have buried, and I will reward the writer of the most moving admission with a year’s subscription to The Reader magazine, if you want it.
(Philip Davis, author of “Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life”, is a professor of English literature at Liverpool University and editor of The Reader magazine.)