i’m on a paris review kick. when george plimpton, the heroic founder and longtime editor of that fine publication (hell, they were the first ones to publish kerouac!), died last year, lewis lapham introduced me to the great soul in his editor’s note of the december 2003 issue of harper’s. the whole thing is worth reading, but lapham himself said that there was no happier eulogy for the man than his own words
“Twenty years ago I asked several New York editors to contribute to Harper’s Magazine their notions, in a thousand words or less, of the perfect balance of form and content otherwise known as Paradise.”
An island. Something along the lines of the Seychelles–with a coastline of granite rocks, like Henry Moore sculptures, rising out of a warm tropical sea.A few incidentals: a large and perfectly balanced boomerang, some bright-colored bathtub toys with small propellers and keys to wind them up, the ingredients and tools for making and setting off large aerial fireworks (along with an instruction booklet), athletic equipment, and a substantial amount of fishing gear, including a number of small red and white bobs.
The island compound would feature a dining pavilion among the palm trees, or a hall, rather, a somewhat baronial edifice with excellent acoustics, so that conversations, even very whispery ones, would not drift up into the rafters and get lost among the ceremonial flags. On hand would be an excellent butler, quite deaf, but faithful, and willing to help with the fireworks.
The compound would contain a number of guest houses. These small mushroomlike structures, set apart from each other, would all have views of the sea. They would be well appointed inside, each one having a white fan turning slowly on the ceiling and a large porcelain washbasin with a neatly folded, fluffed-up towel alongside. Every afternoon I would know my guests were being installed into these accommodations by the sounds of the houseboys chattering excitedly among themselves as they carried the baggage from the quay.
I would not see my guests before dinner, my own day being quite somnolent. Oh, a little boomerang tossing, perhaps, the construction of an aerial bomb or two, some bait-casting in the mangrove swamps, and surely a bit of a tub before dinner. (It’s not that I would feel unfriendly toward my guests, simply that my personal pursuits, especially sitting in a tub winding up a small blue tugboat, would not be especially conducive to their companionship.)
The guest list would be composed of people I have never met. Not only that, they would be dead. Ludwig II, the mad king of Bavaria, dined alone with busts of various dignitaries–Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette among them–set on chairs down the length of the banquet hall at Linderhof, and carried on an animated if slightly one-sided conversation with them. My guests would be the real shades.
Many of them would be seagoing people–the captain of the deserted brigantine Mary Celeste; Joshua Slocum, who also disappeared at sea; Richard Haliburton, who may have fallen off the stern of a Chinese junk; and Captain Kidd, to discuss the whereabouts of his vanished treasure. Shubert, to inquire about the “Lost Symphony,” and perhaps to persuade him to play a bit on the stand-up Yamaha in the corner.
Some of my dinner partner choices would be more quixotic. I’ve always wanted to know why Thomas Cromwell, Oliver’s great-uncle, was so anxious to get Henry VIII to marry Anne, the daughter of the duke of Cleves. (The king took one look and hated her. The marriage took place but was never consummated, and Cromwell lost his head. Frightful error of judgment.) So he could have a brandy or two at dinner and perhaps give an odd little talk on matchmaking. And General James Longstreet. Why, I would ask, did he not roll up Cemetery Ridge when he had the chance?
I don’t know how much of this it would be possible to take. So my Arcadia would also have a swift means of escape–preferably a drug-runner’s cigarette boat with a deep rumble of a motor in it, which, after a time, would tie up at a New York pier where, waiting in a fine mist, there would be a yellow cab.
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