Campbell Corner Language Exchange

excerpts from Reading with Diana

by Kathleen Hill

As published in The Yale Review

For ten years I read aloud to Diana Trilling every week. Her eyesight, by 1987, had badly deteriorated and she had trouble making out the printed page. Some years we met on Mondays, others on Wednesdays or Thursdays. If something interfered so that one of us couldn't arrange to be free that day, we tried to find another time in the same week. We were dedicated to our readings, and although she might occasionally be ill, or I might be away for a month or more, we resumed with a sense of relief. If there had been a long hiatus, or if one of us had something pressing to talk about, we might not read at all that day. But the book was always waiting, and when I arrived at her apartment at four in the afternoon, after the working day was over, we settled to the comfort of the unwinding story with a sense of arriving home.
We read in the front room of the ground-floor apartment, looking out on Claremont Avenue. The chairs were wide and deep, the lamps ready on the table next to the sofa where Diana sat in her accustomed place and beside the chair where I had finally come to settle across the room. A double row of etchings hung in their frames above the sofa, and sometimes, when Diana was out of the room for a moment, I would set one straight that had been knocked askew. In a little elevated bookcase set in one wall, leaning against one another, were books recognizable from Lionel's essays: Ernest Jones's biography of Freud, the letters of Oscar Wilde, William Wordsworth's collected poems. And lying broadside, a picture book on Marcel Proust that Lionel had given Diana on Valentine's Day.
A gingko tree stood on the sidewalk outside the window. In late May its leaves cast a green light in the room, and in the fall, as the afternoons grew short, the fan leaves flickered gold in the twilight. By November they would be lying at the base of the trunk like drifted snow and the branches in the window would be stark and bare. One afternoon in April 1996, six months before Diana died, I arrived to tell her that finally, after a long and punishing winter, a green mist was hanging in the trees on Riverside Drive and there, too, in the gingko just outside the window. "I don't believe a word of it," she cried. "It's an illusion of spring." Then, a moment later, "That would make a good title for a novel, wouldn't it?"

I had watched the tree grow from a sapling since the afternoon I first came to visit Diana in the fall of 1973, having met her by chance that summer in Venice. My husband and I, with our children, had been spending the summer in the former Zaire on Lake Kivu, in Vukavu, working for the Peace Corps, and I had come ahead early to spend some days in Paris at the Bibliotheque Nationale. I was writing a dissertation on Proust and wanted to look at the manuscripts. But the city the narrator of Proust's novel had visited with his mother was on the way and it would cost no more to stop there. It was Venice, the charmed city of his imagination, which he had seen resolve into a commonplace pile of stones when he was faced with the prospect of staying on alone after her departure. And it was Venice, I remembered, that Thomas Mann had chosen for his story of death and love.

One morning in late August, two days after my arrival, I found my way to the Scuola de San Giorgio degli Schiavoni to look at the Carpaccios. The day was all white heat, but the interior of the scuola was shadowy and cool. After a few minutes, when the dazzle of light had yielded to the startling particularity of the large canvases that lined the walls, I became aware of a man and woman looking at one of them. The woman was describing aloud the monks streaming away in fright from Saint Jerome's lion, robes flying, bold streaks of black on white. She pointed out the book dropped in a tuft of grass, its center pages standing upright from its spine, the slippered foot of the frightened reader pushing off for greater speed. The man was silent, his head inclined toward hers. I knew they were the Trillings because my father, like Lionel and Langston Hughes and Lou Gehrig, had been a member of Columbia's class of 1925, and when I was a child I had sometimes accompanied him to Dean's Day to hear Lionel lecture. But I don't think I had ever seen Diana. I had spoken to no one since arriving in Venice, and arranged to leave the chapel at the same moment they did. On the steps, standing in the glare of noon, I asked if they were the Trillings. They looked at me in astonishment. We spoke for a few moments about the Carpaccios, and when there seemed little else to says, they asked would I like to join them for lunch.
We had ham sandwiches and frosty glasses of beer at a table under an awning. They told me they had been at Oxford for the past year and were on their way back to New York. I told them I lived in their neighborhood, o Morningside Drive. We spoke of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of the new wave of South American writers, of the Ca'Rozzonico we had all happened on where Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning had lived. Diana said she was looking for the Danieli Hotel because she had stayed there when she had come as a young woman to Venice with her father. She couldn't remember where it was but would like to find it. I told her I thought that when Proust had visited Venice with his mother he, too, had stayed at the Danieli. We spoke of whether we should order more sandwiches. "But Li," Diana said, "you haven't eaten half enough!" And when we were gathering our things to leave, Diana, who had been concerned to hear I was traveling alone, told me that I must certainly stop by their hotel when I felt like it-Wouldn't I do that?-and if I needed anything I must not hesitate to ask.
I thanked them for lunch and we parted. I already knew that I would not stop by their hotel; it would be awkward suddenly appearing and finding them resting or engaged with other people. But I still had two more days in Venice and the next morning turned a corner to find the Danieli Hotel with its balconied windows looking out, past the Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore, to the horizon where the low dunes of the Lido floated in the hazy light. That afternoon I took the boat out to the Lido and walked up and own trying to find the spot where Aschenbach had grown sick with love. There was the far reach of the sea, the beach with its bathing houses, but I could find no hotel that fit the picture fixed in my imagination. At last, climbing the steps of a shabby building in need of paint, I glimpsed above its broad front entrance a faded sign stamped with the words I had been looking for: HOTEL DES BAINS.
On my last afternoon in Venice, sitting in the piazza on the steps of one of the three massive flagpoles that rise in front of San Marco, I spotted the Trillings sitting with friends at a table in front of one of the cafes. But some shyness, some fear of intruding, kept me from approaching. The pigeons were swirling overhead, the violins sobbing, the gold of San Marco was on fire. I had already visited the baptistery of the basilica where the sensation of uneven stones beneath his feet, revived years later, had given the narrator of Proust's novel his first intimations of the recovery of lost time. The sun was warm o th stones where I sat. I could see Diana and Lionel leaning back in their chairs facing the great sinking litter of San Marco, could see the giants on the digital clock lifting their hammers to strike the hour. In one of those moments when anguish and joy seem indistinguishable, I saw that here was a moment in time never to be recovered, that it was all sliding away as we sat in stillness, all vanishing with the shadow that imperceptibly, moment by moment, was quenching the façade of San Marco.
The next morning, on the way to the vaporetto that would take me to the station, I stopped in a trattoria for coffee. I had passed enough days wandering the city alone and was not sorry to leave. Standing at the counter, I glimpsed Diana and Lionel sitting in the back against a wall. This was my farewell to Venice, and it might as well be my farewell to them. But why, I asked myself, hoisting my bag to my shoulder, is there always this reticence, this shrinking away, before drawing near another person? I greeted them, and told Diana that I had found the Danieli. She had as well, yes, yes, it was right here, looking out over the sea, but of course it didn't look as she had remembered. I said I was just on my way to catch a train, was on my way out. "Call me," Diana said. "Call me, when we're all back in the city and we'll have tea."

And so our friendship began. Rushing along the street that September on my way to visit her for the first time, I thought to remember the number 35 Claremont by adding two to my age: thirty-three. I would leave her apartment knowing that Diana had turned sixty-eight that summer, was Jewish, and that she had a son named Jim who was in his mid-twenties; she would know that I was Irish Catholic and had three small daughters. We would have agreed that parenthood bestowed a delight so intense that people without children must be protected from knowing what they were missing. And I would have privately decided, an opinion never to be reversed, that her outrageous sense of the ludicrous made her one of the funniest people I had ever met.
But what was remarkable about that first visit was the sense of wonder and relief I felt in being able to talk to an older woman not my mother about matters my husband and I and all our friends endlessly discussed without much light. How was the subject broached and b whom? How, on the basis of crossing paths in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, did we find out way immediately on sitting down together to a discussion of whether or not affairs were possible in marriage? But she had married in her early twenties as had I, and she told me that she and her friends had tirelessly discussed the possibilities just as we did not. She did not give advice, did not say how she herself had addressed these difficulties, but, as I nervously gobbled cucumber sandwiches, led me to understand that she believed people had the right to claim some area of privacy around themselves, some measure of freedom wherein the choices they made need not be revealed to anyone at all. She said that fidelity in marriage was not easily defined, that she thought it a strenuous and lifelong enterprise, but that she considered it dirty-minded--that was the expression she used: it rests in my journal--to make fidelity a matter of whether you slept with someone other than your spouse. She said also that she remembered a time not so very long before the afternoon we were speaking when a group of their friends, married couples of the same age, had been talking about these things, and that it had been the women who seemed most to have regretted the opportunities left unexplored. She was not telling me one thing or another, but she was assuring me of the possibility of choice.
In fact, we returned to this subject over a period of several visits spanning the next two years. We talked, too, about our parents and brothers and sisters, and when I voiced a fear that something I was thinking about writing might prove upsetting to someone in my family, she said she thought it best to assume a generosity of response, that was best for one's own sake and for everyone else's. The subject was quickly dropped, but years later, when we were both writing memoirs, we would return to this subject with greater urgency. She talked, too, about how in her thirties she had come to writing; how, after an extended illness had led her to abandon all hope of a singing career, she had watched Lionel like a hawk to see what his response would be the day she first proposed writing reviews for The Nation. But he had encouraged her work, she said, always. Coming down the hall from the back of the apartment, he would courteously greet us on his way out to teach a class, pausing to arrange with her some small errand, a trip to the post office, or a stop at the butcher's to pick up the chicken breasts they would have that night for dinner. Did he have enough money with him? "But don't leave me penniless, Li!"

Diana in 1974 was at work on a review of Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage, and she said that although she admired the devoted friendship between Vita Sackville-West and Nicolson, she thought their freedoms to live as they liked had largely to do with their privileged position in English society. Members of the middle or working class, pursuing a life as sexually adventurous as theirs, would have paid heavily, both socially and economically. She spoke of the arduous labor writing was for her. She had already asked me if I didn't think Lionel's style sounded simple. "But you can't imagine the …," she said, pausing. "Pain?" I offered. "The pain," she repeated, "that went into it." Perhaps it was on this occasion that I complained about how slowly my dissertation was taking shape because my difficulty prompted a letter dated 27 February 1975.

I've been thinking of what you told me of your slowness as a writer; as I said, we're similarly afflicted in this household. I think the important point about which you have to be ruthlessly honest is the matter of progress: do you inch along, do you carry the work forward if only a small amount at a time? There is no other criterion, it seems to me, for distinguishing between a perhaps too great but nonetheless valuable precision of style and the use of meticulousness as an evasion, to be thought of as only a problem, against which you must mobilize all your energies of self-correction. Once you work out the style for a piece of writing, appropriate to the material and your image of yourself as author, you should, in a morning of work, have a page that's new-that's a practical minimum at your age and stage, I think . Thus, if you go back over four or five pages, you should come out with five or six, perhaps not every single day, but most days. Do you manage that? If you do not, then just by force of will you must move on despite this or that lax sentence or this or that insufficient word.
Anyway, I'm making this my rule, even at my age and stage, and invite you to join with me.

"Mobilize all your energies of self-correction." I knew the ring of a sentence like this one. But I had heard it at school only in admonitory statements in regard to the prescribed duties of young girls, of married women in relation to their husbands and children. I had not yet heard diction such as this used in regard to responsibilities toward oneself or one's chosen work. Nor had anyone ever taken my writing quite so seriously.

Diana would tell me, not long before she died, that she hadn't seen my face in years. I was startled because it was easy to forget, watching her move quickly across a room, that she could at last see only the edges of things. But startled, too, because I realized she had not seen my face grow older as I had seen hers, that she perhaps imagined mine to be the one that had hovered beside her own years before while she filled my cup with tea as quickly as I drained it, dropping a lump of sugar into it with silver tongs, tearing open a pink slip of saccharine for herself. Or, I wondered, was it, in any case, continuity that we always see in our friends, did the new lines in their faces finally make very little difference? What mattered was what I could see before me: the woman who at ninety threw hr arm, just as she had always done, across the back of the sofa, who sat at ease with her legs apart or with an ankle resting elegantly on a knee. Here she was, bending to pick up the phone as she had during those years when I eagerly listened to her strategies for making sure of her working time. "Yes, yes, I'd adore a visit. That would be wonderful. Next week and the one following are impossible, but would the week after that suit you? Are you quite sure that would fit your schedule? Be really convenient? Good, and in the meantime I'll forward immensely to our visit."
So that I had wondered if the person on the other end of the line had hung up thinking that it was he or she who had chosen a time one month hence for the visit they hoped to arrange in the next days.

During the fall of 1975 when Diana and Lionel returned from their summer away, Lionel was not well and went into Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for tests. One day in September I was driving Diana up Riverside Drive to visit him when she told me that the day before a shadow had been discovered on his pancreas, a tumor. I thought of the Guermantes receiving Swann's news that he would soon be dead: "Why, you'll outlive us all," the Duke cries, and sends up for the red shoes. In the silence that gathered in the closed spaces of the car, I was made aware by the presence at my side that for the moment there was nothing to be said, and instead stared mutely through the windshield at the rain-drenched road. Diana went on to say that he had heard the diagnosis and that she'd assumed he'd understood until she heard him later on the phone telling someone that this was all going to delay his teaching for a couple of weeks.
And then she continued that she knew something had been wrong in July when he'd had a series of terrible nightmares. That she blamed herself for thinking so long that the disorder was psychological and had tried to talk him out of his distress. I had still found nothing to say when we pulled up in front of the hospital, and she climbed out of the car and disappeared through the revolving doors.

In one of our visits soon after his death two months later, on November 5, she said the genius of marriage was that in a cold world there was one other person for whom you counted first. When night came, you at last went home to each other. You might disagree, endure periods of disharmony, but when one of you was in danger or very unhappy, the other one rallied. "If Lionel were alive, I know we'd fight sometimes, just as when he was alive, it's not that I think things would be altered to perfection. But he'd be here." We were sitting in her immaculate little kitchen, eating tuna fish sandwiches. For the moment, the formality of the teas had been put aside. "The world may be lamenting the death of the literary critic," she continued, "but I miss the man bringing home the pork chops."
Out of the corner of my eye, I had been watching a cockroach make a slow path down the wall next to the table here we sat. Just then he crawled into sight. Diana looked blank for a moment, then threw back her head, helplessly delighted with the absurdity of it all. "What a life!" she hooted, as if all our dilemmas had been solved.

In the years following Lionel's death, Diana plunged into the editorial work of putting together his uncollected writing, of seeing his collected work brought out in a new edition, and into writing a book of her own. I, having at last finished my dissertation, began teaching full time. Our afternoons together were less frequent. Sometimes my husband and I would be invited for dinner or for drinks, as in the days when Lionel was alive, but Diana was afraid of heights and wasn't eager to come to our fourth-floor apartment. One day she called to say she wanted to make some tapes--informal conversations--in which she talked about her life, and asked if I would be wiling to help her do this. We arranged a time, sat in our accustomed places on the sofa, set the tape running, and attempted our usual conversation. But it was all flat and stilted, the rhythms were wrong, and we gave up in defeat.
Then one afternoon in the fall of 1986, when we were again sitting at tea, she told me that her eyesight had in the past few months badly deteriorated. She talked about the ways her life was consequently made more difficult. She needed to bring in more money from her writing now in order to pay the secretary she had recently hired to take dictation. She could no longer see the type-written page without the aid of a magnifying glass. But her greatest regret, she said, was that she would never again read Proust. I listened amazed. It was ten years since I had completed my dissertation, and over the last months I had been visited by the thought more and more insistently that it was time to return to Proust. I wanted to read his novel under circumstances that would have nothing to do with dissertations. My children were grown, the disposal of my time more my own. So it was quickly agreed. Once a week in the late afternoon I would read aloud to us Remembrance of Things Past, an undertaking we could not have predicted would take us six years to complete.

Perhaps because Proust's novel begins with an account of that floating state between dream and waking, it soon occurred to me that reading aloud to someone you love is a little like sitting with them in the dark, talking. The words of the book, the image that passes before your eyes, is the dream from which you slowly awaken to find yourself awash in scattered images from your past, odd bits of ponderings for which there seem no words. But if someone is there beside you, and if there are rings of quiet surrounding anything that is said, then these fragments may find their way into speech. Your thoughts can roam freely, darting backward and forward in time, the way they do when you are alone. You are speaking to the dark. Silences, as under a night sky, open to a place beyond themselves.
The book, with Diana, was our dark place, the fertile ground of memory and confidence. Had it ever happened to either of us, as to the narrator when he first encounters Gilberte at Tansoville, that an exchange of eyes had been enough, that it had seemed as if everything had been accomplished in a gaze? Yes, once to her after her mother's death on a boat going to Brazil, when she had been traveling with her father. She had been singing one night o an assembled group and a man had come and stood in the door to listen. She would never forget his face. I had passed someone on a street in a village in southern France when I was twenty-six and we had both stared in instant, blinding recognition. And currently such as that with which Francoise had tormented the pregnant kitchen maid, the spring of the asparagus? Yes, we had each encountered that in our childhoods, the sudden revelation of gratuitous malice in an adult, and remembered the thrill of fear it produced.
Or, when we reached Swann in Love, Diana confessed she had never been subject to obsessive love, the kind Swann felt for Odette, what she supposed was called romantic love. It was not part of her makeup and she never quite understood what people meant when they talked about it. To be imprisoned in this way! To be sapped of one's will! It made her think of people she had known in the grip of alcohol, or drugs. But there we differed. Love of this kind was all too familiar to me, and I suddenly understood that our conversations about affairs so many years before must have had a different meaning for each of us, not apparent at the time.
There were moments, too, many of them, when we sat in hushed and humbled silence. These occurred early in our reading, but were repeated again and again throughout the years. They were almost always in response to a passage building rhythmically, irresistibly, toward a moment of revelation-as, for example, the famous passage in which the taste of the Madeleine dipped in tea is said to evoke a joy in the narrator that stirs him from lethargy to the work of memory, the resurrection of the whole of Combray, "towns and gardens alike." It was then that we were together listening to the voice beneath the voice on the page, the strains of rapture that are the most intimate thing we know about a writer, the secret urgings of spirit.