Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What a Prize!

the winner of the Runciman Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Benveniste Prize

Among the splendid properties owned and administered by the admirable National Trust of Great Britain is the Georgian mansion called Lamb House in Rye, Sussex, famous in literary history as the private residence of Henry James for the last two decades of his life. The National Trust does not simply create museums. It tries, whenever feasible and appropriate, to keep the treasures entrusted to its stewardship as living monuments to the national history. The trust sometimes leases its significant “literary” properties to significant living British writers, one of the conditions of the lease guaranteeing both the privacy of the occupants and some public access to certain “museum” rooms at certain appointed times. Thus it was that in the 1970s the tenant of Lamb House was Rumer Godden (1908-1998), who in her long and prolific career published dozens of books, including some famous ones like Black Narcissus and Greengage Summer and who in her time was among the most famous writers of books for young people.

One of her readers was a little American girl whose grandparents by happenstance lived in Rye. Though still too young for Henry James, she had read and savored several books by Rumer Godden. This girl could hardly believe her ears when one day as they walked about the town during a school holiday her grandfather pointed out a fine old house as the actual residence of her currently favorite author. Her enthusiasm was not fully satisfied by the possibility—held out to her by her grandfather—of surveying Henry James’s walking-stick and his writing desk on any Wednesday afternoon between two and five. She wanted to talk to Rumer Godden. So she undertook a private initiative.

Lamb House, Rye (Sussex)

The next day—nicely scrubbed and (as I recall it) wearing her school uniform—she walked up to the mighty front door of Lamb House and rang its bell. A housemaid opened it. Politely acknowledging her awareness that it was not Wednesday and indeed not between the hours of two and five, but rather ten o’clock on a bright sunny morning, she expressed her desire to engage Rumer Godden in literary conversation. The maid, too, was impeccably polite. She asked the little girl to wait at the door for a moment, then retired into the interior. Within two minutes Rumer Gooden appeared at the door. Brief words, formal but not without a tempered cordiality, were exchanged. The famous writer, then in her sixth decade of life, invited the girl, more than half a century younger, to return in a day or two to take tea with her in her private quarters, or, if the weather were lucky, in the garden in which Henry James had once sat burnishing the golden sentences of The Golden Bowl. Thus did Katherine Elizabeth Fleming make, with a typifying independence, her formal debut in the world of letters.

I recognize that pride is a sin, the worst of them indeed, but I hope there might be an exceptional easement in one genre—parental pride. For the pride that her mother and father took in her on that occasion has only increased over the years. For me the latest opportunity to bask in it came two nights ago. Joan is already back in New Jersey, but I know she was there in spirit, as I was in the too, too, solid flesh, when at a grand assembly at the Sorbonne she was awarded (yet another) prize for her latest book—Greece: A Jewish History.

The sponsoring academy, the Centre Alberto Benveniste, is devoted to Sephardic Studies—that is, to all aspects of the Jewish culture of old Iberia and its diasporic filiations. (Sefarad was the old Hebrew name for Iberia). The once vibrant Jewish culture of Greece, long centered in Thessaloniki, had its beginning in one of history’s great crimes and its end in another. Like many other exile Jewish communities of the Mediterranean world most Greek Jews traced their origins to the ethnic cleansing undertaken by the Reyes Católicos at the end of the fifteenth century. The surviving community was virtually annihilated in the Holocaust.

I have some associations with some ancient educational institutions. My alma mater, Sewanee, was founded before the Civil War—making it venerable by American standards. Jesus College, Oxford, where I did further study, was founded by Elizabeth I. Princeton, where I taught for many years, was founded under the reign of George II. But Robert de Sorbon founded the institution that still bears his name in 1259 in the reign of Saint Louis, a contemporary of Henry III! That is the date one sees written large in a gilded aureole on the ceiling of the Salle Louis Liard, the magnificent lecture hall in nineteenth-century imitation rococo, in which the prize ceremony took place.

The Salle Louis Liard at the Sorbonne

In a room like this a meeting of the Baxter County Zoning Board might be mistaken for the Congress of Vienna. In this instance there was a happy symmetry of architectural and intellectual brilliance. The proceedings began with an erudite but heart-wrenching lecture by Prof. Michèle Escamilla, an eminent hispanist, on the subject of the dealings of the Inquisition with children in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I shall allow no summary of its contents to cloud the largely joyous tone of the evening.

Two Beneviste prizes were awarded, one for fiction, and one for scholarship. The winner in the fiction category was the distinguished writer Éliette Abécassis, author of Sépharade. Her work has been much acclaimed, and one of her earlier novels, Clandestin, was among its year’s draw for the Prix Goncourt. Katy’s prize was of course for a work of historical scholarship. Speaking in beautiful French perhaps slightly modulated with a tinge of Provence, where she first spoke the language as a toddler, she succinctly outlined the salient features of a vanished Greek Jewry, and the chief purpose of her book: the recuperation of a fragile history threatened with oblivion. It was a moment that her husband Zvi and her father, privileged with reserved seats in the front rows of the crowded theater, will long remember.

Zvi, a friend, and Katy (with diva bouquet)

The evening in the Salle Liard ended with a fascinating concert of Judaeo-hispanic music, gathered from authentic folk traditions and performed on more-or-less authentic instruments, by a group called Presensya. A large group of us then retired to a restaurant on the rue Monsieur le Prince—a street in which my wife and I had lodged in 1962 when I was conducting research on my doctoral dissertation! There I had the honor of including among my conversation partners one of the daughters of Alberto Benveniste and, at my immediate right hand, the current rector (i.e., president) of the University of Lisbon. Regular readers of the blog will appreciate the timeliness of this fortuitous meeting. Though his field is more modern literature, he is Portuguese, so you can imagine the subject of our conversation: Luis de Camões.

I have been amazed but of course pleased to see that two of our three wonderful children have taken up the scholarly life in which I myself took such great satisfaction. So here is an unblushing paean to Professor Katherine Fleming! I hope that under the circumstances my pride in my daughter is not unseemly, let alone culpable. My whole scholarly career has been devoted to the study of tradition, and I feel comfortable if a little wistful to take my own place in one. I hope somebody, somewhere, still reads Tennyson’s magnificent “Idylls of the King”. As the old Arthur departs into the mists of history he makes a famous speech. Since he was the father to a whole nation, his sentiments are naturally more elevated than mine, though I certainly echo them in a more modest register.

The old order changeth [says King Arthur], yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

I had early warning of the paternal eclipse at an academic conference at least a decade ago. In my business the material rewards are mainly symbolic; and since one will never become rich, one has to concentrate as best one can on becoming famous or rather “famous”, since academic fame is largely spurious and certainly transitory. Well, I did become borderline “famous”—meaning that at academic conclaves I sometimes enjoyed the public respect of my peers, and a kind of toadying admiration from my juniors. Once at some unmemorable scholarly conference in some unmemorable, homogenized Chicago hotel, I was walking through a lobby crowded with anxious young scholars. Someone among this group recognized me. An instant buzz began, and its treacle entered one ear. “Bzzzzzzzzzz-bzzzzzzzzzzzz-bzzzzzzzzzz-Fleming.” The demon of pride, ever by my side, whispered in my other: “Listen: they are bzzzzzzzzing about you!” Only then did I catch one whole sentence from one of the bzzzzzers. “That,” she said in star-struck tones, “is Katherine Fleming’s father!”