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Reflections of novelist Robert Nathan and his marvelous literary style

Robert Nathan died the other day at 91. He had outlived his celebrity, celebrity being what it is today.

But to those who knew him as a friend, or who were first enchanted by his novels in our youth, he was still a giant.

Until very recently Nathan had continued to write with the wit and style that had illuminated his life’s work.

I consider myself lucky that he often took a moment to write a note to me, sometimes provoked by something I had written, sometimes merely to express his “feeble fury” at some madness in the world today.

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Having been married seven times, and being happily married, at the end, to Anna Lee Nathan, Nathan was an expert on women, which is to say that he knew we could never know very much about them.

He once described, in a note to me, his relationship with Anna:

“In the old days, while the glaciers were retreating across the land, and before ERA, women always walked behind their man, carrying either their youngest child, or a large stone; the idea being that the man would meet the first onrush of an enemy, such as a sabre-toothed tiger or another man, and if he lost the fight, the woman would have at least something with which to smack the foe. Your wife is simply a primal woman; my own Anna Lee, descended from the Iceni of Britain (whose Queen, Boadicea, led her forces into battle against Rome), goes headlong into everything, while I, hurrying as I may, bring up the rear, clutching whatever comes to hand, such as an umbrella or a checkbook. . . .”

I once wrote about the melancholy of Sunday afternoon, and he answered:

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“Even children feel a vague sadness late of a Sunday afternoon, in that hour when the light has turned gray and cold and before the yellow lamps are lit in the blue evening air. It is because Sunday is a special day, unlike any other. . . .

“On Sunday, anything can happen, something marvelous. . . . One waits for it all week; and then, as the day passes, and the light begins to fail, one realizes that nothing marvelous has happened after all.

“Old people feel like that, too. They look ahead to Sunday . . . only to realize, when it comes, that nothing marvelous has happened, or ever will; they are simply one week older. But there is this difference: By the time the lamps are lit, old people are already looking ahead to Monday when the world picks up again. Perhaps on Monday something marvelous. . . .”

When I pointed out that we had no word for a man and woman who were living together outside marriage, Nathan made a suggestion:

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” ' Autre temps, autre moeurs '; manners change from age to age; and along with manners, morals; and that calls for some new language.

“So what does one call a man and a woman who live together out of wedlock. . . ? The old names, with their implication of sin, won’t do anymore; the practice is too general, and too generally accepted. At the same time, he is not her husband, and she is not his wife. As they rise out of bed together, who are they? What are we to call them?

“I think that we ought to go back to the old days and the old language, over which age and nostalgia have drawn a softening veil. So I suggest she call him her comfit--a dry sweetmeat containing a nut or piece of fruit; and that he call her his leman (archaic; 1. beloved. 2. sweetheart. 3. mistress); and that they be considered to be living in comfiture. . . . “

He could laugh at his age. When a reader suggested that we call older people by their decades--sixtos, septos, octos, and nonos, he answered:

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“It’s all very well for you to revel in the idea of yourself as a sexto--but I’m not at all pleased to see myself as an octo, which sounds like a small, furry, spidery animal clambering up and down trees.

“And I shall hate even more to be called a nono--or no no, with all that it implies. Why not an elder? Granted it’s a bit biblical, but it does have a certain authority, and at the same time suggests that one is still spry (or sly) enough to peek through the bushes at Susannah. . . . “

He was sickened by the failure of the London Times:

“Having been reminded in your column today of the death (imminent) of the London Times, I thought of the death of so much of what we (who were born before the Great Wars) were brought up to think of as our civilization. The American family, for instance--father and mother and children all living together in the family house; the great American trains, the best in the world. American ingenuity and invention; the honesty of the American worker. The friendliness of the French, the gallantry of the British . . . the innocence of children.

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“All of that gone. Oughtn’t we try at least to save the London Times?”

Finally, he had some advice for the young:

“Being very old, and therefore venerable, and my wife, besides, being away in England visiting the queen, I have found myself several times in the position of marriage (or comfiture) counselor to the young, for whom I have prepared this bit of advice, or precept, also applicable to their elders:

I love you very much, my darling,

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You are my childhood’s dream.

But do not in a fit of snarling,

Puncture my self-esteem.”

Maybe Monday something marvelous. . . .

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