Book Review

Life, Love, and the Very Stuff of Writing: A Duet

Stuart Mitchner

Theodore and Renée Weiss's The Always Present Present (Quarterly Review of Literature & Sheep Meadow Book $24.95) celebrates both a marriage and the working partnership—a marriage of minds—that produced and sustained the 60-year run of the Quarterly Review of Literature, which began in 1943 at the University of North Carolina under the editorship of Warren Carrier. Within a year Carrier had gone off to World War II and Theodore Weiss was, as he puts it in his brief history of QRL in The Always Present Present, "left holding the little magazine." His young wife, "innocent of what she was getting into," offered to help him. The symbiotic relationship of marriage and magazine is made immediately obvious when he admits that he was "equally unaware of the vows we were taking."

The vows were soon to be tested. When Ted became an instructor at Yale, it was up to Renée to keep the magazine alive for the two-year period before it moved with the Weisses to Bard, where it remained for 20 years before moving with them to Princeton in 1966.

I use the authors' first names here to avoid the inevitable repetition and confusion when both subjects share the same surname, but beyond that, this is, after all, a love story, and referring to Ms. Weiss and Mr. Weiss in that context would be like citing Ms. Capulet and Mr. Montague. It's got to be Renée and Ted.

The book is prefaced by a duet based on the idea of an anniversary present, underscoring the play on "present" in the title. What's it to be? Renée wonders: "A gift that will grow out of us?" And Ted springs the pun, "Yes, a present, out of all our past to keep us in constant memory." When she says "But you haven't said what that should be," he extends the wordplay and "be" becomes "bee," words like bees "thrumming side by side" ("bees" reappear in one of his letters as "poems buzzing in my head like honey-sucking bumblebees"). The duet closes with Ted saying "I give you what, honeycombed by your lips, you give me: a present celebrating our sixty years," to which she adds, "A present, fraught in the past, made not only of the said, but the unsaid," with Ted providing the last line: "as well as the unsayable."

The prefatory interplay suggests how the jointly written poems woven in among the letters Ted wrote to Renée between 1939 and 1941 may have been composed, and the reference to the said, the unsaid, and the unsayable suggests a glancing allusion to the openly personal nature of the book. Although Ted was alive to approve the publication of these letters, it's safe to assume that he had no such intention when he wrote them. In addition to any merit the material might have, one obvious justification for printing such intimate writing, whether letters or journal entries (or drafts of poems as in the recent publication of Elizabeth Bishop's unfinished poetry), is to enable readers to compare a writer's formal, finished work with spontaneous expression in a freer, less formal mode. So, in The Always Present Present, the composed, essentially formal poems are aligned with the relatively informal letters. In Renée's words, "The letters were the seeds of the poems' harvest."

Renée Weiss will be reading from The Always Present Present at the Princeton University store's third-floor events area next Sunday, May 7, at 4 p.m.

The poems are there to be read not only for what they are but for how they reflect or comment on the letters. Even so, it's all too easy to skim over the poetry on first reading, carried along by the "real-life" plot unfolding in these much-more-than-love letters from a 24-year-old graduate student at Columbia University to the 17-year-old "girl next door" in Allentown, Pa. When the Karols became neighbors of the Weisses, the first connection that developed was not between Ted and Renée but between Ted and her father, who enjoyed expanding the musical horizons of the bright young man next door. The Karols were a musical family with "lots of violinists" according to Renée, who plays the violin herself and has performed with, among others, the Oxford University Symphony, the Woodstock String Quartet, and the Princeton Chamber Orchestra (not to mention studying dance with Martha Graham and José Limón). Mr. Karol took an interest in Ted, inviting him along to concerts when he was home from Columbia. The two also discussed literature, philosophy, and politics (Mr. Karol once ran for mayor of Allentown on the socialist ticket). When the boy and girl next door began falling in love, neither the Karols nor the Weisses were happy with the romance, though the major opposing force was Ted's father, who also thought his son was spending too much of his study time writing letters to Renée. When Ted heard that even her grandparents had been persuaded that marriage would be a threat to his work and his career, he was furious. After venting his anger, he wrote: "No more letter writing? No more seeing? &I spend my thoughts on you, instead of writing? Don't you yet know that my thoughts on you are the very stuff of writing, that our love is one of the few fruitful experiences in our life, one of the most precious (if not the most), and they want to take that from us!"

So saying, he provides a good blurb for letters that are "the very stuff of writing." However full of tender endearments, pet names, and expressions of love they may be, the letters are eloquent, passionate, evocative, astute, and remarkably self-aware. It's as if Mercutio had taken the pen from Romeo and cut loose, weaving his magic spell around Juliet. Another element that makes Ted's letters compelling is the way the beloved enters into and energizes the writing; she might as well be at his side, urging him on. All that he's observing and feeling and putting forth is for her, not to make her love him more (though clearly that's also his wish), but as a reflection of her inspiring power, a tribute to his muse, laid at her feet. At the same time, the excitement of writing in the present brings with it the fever of youth going after life and literature head on, the graduate student inspired not only by his lover but by his mentor (in this case Mark Van Doren) and by all-night conversations with his best friend, poet David Schubert.

The letters also offer slices of New York life, off the cuff as it were, observed on the bus and the subway, and, on one occasion, with his friend David in "the narrow trench of a restaurant, surrounded by men on stools & the behind-the-counter waiter's voice." He puts Renée right there, playfully advising "If you hear noises, don't turn around: it's the shoving around of chairs & people's appetites." Then: "While David eats a hamburger, I write this on a table just the least bit larger than this letter. If there are any grease stains on the page, David did it." He goes on to describe the voluble waiter singing the praises of different dishes to the customers, and a "bulgy girl" who complains that the stools are too near the counter, and a girl behind the counter sighing ("Life's so BORING!"), and "fellows sliding by with their dishes," one bumping against David "& David spills half his coffee over the table. By a hair, I save this letter from a darkbrown death by drowning." These playful touches, random details, word choices he might have had second thoughts about in a composed account are all here in the quick of the moment. And he's well aware of what he's doing: "Talk about your ivory-tower writing? You can't say my letters to you don't come straight from the horse's mouth!"

Renée Today

Ted Weiss died in 2003 after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. Renée has since moved from their home on Haslet Avenue into a spacious apartment at Stonebridge, complete with a piano and numerous well-stocked bookcases, including one containing a complete run of the Quarterly Review of Literature. With the help of some Princeton students, she is still busy going through papers, back issues, and other business in the office at 185 Nassau Street. When asked about how she came to the magazine's rescue early on, she says: "I handled the business. But I didn't know anything about business. I'm an inventor. I learn from what is there. It teaches me." As an example she spoke of the garden she created at Haslet Avenue, and how she turned three trees into ten and a ditch into a river bed: "Every time it rained we had a river. I made out of something practical something beautiful. When I did the David Schubert issue [of QRL, a mixture of biography, letters, and poetry], I did it my way. I like to do things differently." The same idea comes across in Ted's account of Renée's role in the Quarterly's survival when "her many unusual skills ensured our being committed" to it "for much of the rest of our lives."

"As I think back," Renée Karol Weiss says, "I think 'How did I ever do it?' But then I didn't know how I did it. I just did it!"

She was a junior in college when she stepped in to catch the magazine that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside.

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