woensdag 27 november 2013

Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life by Ann Beattie (Boek)

*****
Dazzlingly original, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon is a riveting exploration of an elusive American icon and of the fiction writer’s art.
Pat Nixon remains one of our most mysterious and intriguing public figures, the only modern First Lady who never wrote a memoir. Beattie, like many of her generation, dismissed Richard Nixon’s wife: “interchangeable with a Martian,” she said. Decades later, she wonders what it must have been like to be married to such a spectacularly ambitious and catastrophically self-destructive man.

Drawing on a wealth of sources from Life magazine to accounts by Nixon’s daughter and his doctor to The Haldeman Diaries and Jonathan Schell’s The Time of Illusion, Beattie reconstructs dozens of scenes in an attempt to see the world from Mrs. Nixon’s point of view. Like Stephen King’s On Writing, this fascinating and intimate account offers readers a rare glimpse into the imagination of a writer.

Beattie, whose fiction Vanity Fair calls “irony-laced reports from the front line of the baby boomers’ war with themselves,” packs insight and humor into her examination of the First Couple with whom boomers came of age. Mrs. Nixon is a startlingly compelling and revelatory work.

Review
“Beattie has created a resplendent paean to the pleasures of the literary imagination , and a riveting and mischievous, revealing and revitalizing portrait of an overlooked woman.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
About the Author
Ann Beattie has been included in four O. Henry Award Collections and in John Updike’s The Best American Short Stories of the Century. In 2000, she received the PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in the short story form. In 2005, she received the Rea Award for the Short Story. She and her husband, Lincoln Perry, live in Key West, Florida, and Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is Edgar Allan Poe Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Lady in the Green Dress

In The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss has described a TV broadcast during which Mr. Nixon faced some hard questions about his stance on Vietnam. After the show ended, “Roger Ailes went looking for Nixon. He wound up in an elevator with Nixon’s wife. She was wearing a green dress and she did not smile. One thought of the remark a member of Nixon’s staff had made: ‘Next to her, RN looks like Mary Poppins.’

“‘Hello, Mrs. Nixon,’ Roger Ailes said.

“She nodded. She had known him for months.

“‘How did you like the show?’ he asked.

“She nodded very slowly; her mouth was drawn in a thin, straight line.

“‘Everyone seems to think it was by far the best,’ Ailes said. ‘Especially the way he took care of that McKinney.’

“Pat Nixon stared at the elevator door. The car stopped. The door opened. She got off and moved down a hallway with the Secret Service men around her.”

Her possible thoughts?

Mr. Ailes is a loyal supporter, but these people can be a bit naÏve.

Or: It pleases Mr. Ailes very much to think he’s found the way to elicit a positive response from me. Why should I comply just to please him?

Perhaps: “Mr. Ailes, has it ever occurred to you that I’m a serious person, and that the conclusions you have drawn with such certainty are expedient and self-serving?”

“If I were a vain woman I might turn the subject to myself—the same way, by being so outspoken, you turn the subject as much to yourself as to my husband. And so I might ask you whether you didn’t think this was the dandiest dress you’d seen in a long time, and whether we shouldn’t applaud: for my husband; for the advent of television; for your job; for my dress, which I tailored myself. What do you say, Dr. Pangloss?”

“Mr. Ailes, do you find it possible to think that yes, I am Mrs. Nixon, but I am also a woman on her way somewhere, that I am just passing through in a perfunctory way, and that even if I were to answer, whatever I say does not really matter?”

Better: “Will you remember tomorrow, Mr. Ailes, that when we spoke I was wearing a green dress? I will certainly remember that you were wearing a white shirt, because you don’t have as much leeway as I do, or the freedom most any woman does, about how to dress.”

“Forgive me for not answering, but the truth is that I am thinking about my own neatly styled hair and clothing. I don’t have to say a word, but you more or less have to say something to me, don’t you? So why not admire the dress I bought at Lord & Taylor and paid too much for, instead of pretending my husband is the only topic of interest. If you liked it, I might think better of you.”

“Oh, excuse me, I would so love to stay and discuss this, but you see, I brought my pet tortoise with me and it has run away, and I must try to find it before it buries itself in the dirt that is our lives.”

“Mr. Ailes, I may very well have forgotten to turn off the bathwater.”

© 2011 Ann Beattie


Stories as Preemptive Strikes

Mrs. Nixon (before she was Mrs. Nixon) had many nicknames, and one of them was Buddy. She liked the nickname because she felt her given name did not suit her. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would be thrilled to be named Thelma. Her mother insisted on naming her that for reasons unknown. The baby’s father—who maintained she had been born later than the time of her actual birth—called her his St. Patrick’s Babe in the Morn (soon shortened simply to Babe). As far as I can tell, she was born somewhere near midnight the day preceding St. Patrick’s Day, 1912, though that doesn’t really detract from her father’s fondly effusive Irish feeling. Babe lasted for quite a while as a nickname, though Buddy intruded in childhood. Buddy suggests a tomboy, and perhaps any girl who grew up on a farm and did chores and took the dusty world as her playground would seem tomboyish, but as with so much about Mrs. Nixon, new and reliable information recedes with time. Upon entering college, Thelma became, at her own behest, Patricia, then was referred to as Pat, carrying her about as far away from someone else’s intention about her identity as most people dared go in those days.

A lot of fiction writers I know own a book called What Shall We Name the Baby? because in the heat of writing—or even after cold deliberation—even the simplest name just won’t pop into the writer’s head. The name Ann is forgotten, Jim unremembered. Sometimes writers want to consider etymology, or to use New Age names to express the mystical quality of the child, or some quality that is hoped for—but I’m thinking of something else: the writer’s panicky sense that all names have escaped him or her, and unless the writer can immediately find something (“Jane!”), the character will evaporate before ever being realized. Writers will tell you that when they remembered the name John, suddenly everything became possible. But because they have to look up a name, when no name can be conjured up, they have this book near their desks—unless the writers write on the kitchen counter, say, and then they have it in the fruit bowl. (Think about how many prospective grandmothers have been misled by noticing this book.)

Buddy. Names, nicknames, they’re fascinating to writers, but they also cause anxiety because they’re so elusive, and because writers have to come up with so many of them. Few people have a gift for the perfect name or nickname, and many such adult monikers are given without the victims’ awareness. Henry Kissinger, for example, called Haldeman and Ehrlichman “the Fanatics.” (H. R. Haldeman was Nixon’s Chief of Staff; John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs.) Children have to accept their names, at least until they can protest. I don’t know how Mrs. Nixon felt about being Buddy. Bottom line, most of us only really want nicknames invented by those we love. My husband has so many nicknames for me that it’s lucky we don’t have pets. When he calls, I answer to most anything: that day’s nickname will undoubtedly be something I don’t recognize except for the tone. The only time I stop dead is when he calls me Ann. When he addresses me directly, I’m in trouble. Thelma/Buddy/Pat may have answered to even more names, but we’ll never know.

I think of her, though, as Mrs. Nixon. Perhaps Richard Nixon thought of her as Pat or as some endearment we don’t know, such as Fuzzy Bunny, but when he referred to her, it was usually as Mrs. Nixon. An egoist like Nixon would of course see people as extensions of himself, so that when he was referring to his wife he was implying a certain dignity, insisting upon the respect he felt was inherent in the position she occupied (thanks to him). Since he often spoke of himself as “he,” which is much more bizarre, it’s understandable that he would refer to his wife formally. He thought aloud and liked to fabricate stories, and if he hadn’t been president, many of his fictions would be highly hilarious, but you’re stopped from laughing about this dissociation when you realize that he had control of the “red telephone”—its nickname is the only way it’s referred to—and that when he was drunkenly wandering the corridors of the White House talking to the portraits hung on the walls (according to Edward, a.k.a. Eddie, Cox, his son-in-law), one of them might have answered and told him to go make mischief by holding down the little button.

In thinking aloud, he often used the expression “and so forth” as a kind of shorthand for what didn’t need to be elaborated—especially since he was often talking to himself. He was his own best audience, and his predictable gestures, his distinctive mannerisms, must have felt like reassuring forms of applause, replacing the usual hand clapping. Nixon—like many politicians—while often in the presence of other people, was essentially talking to himself. He devised stories for others to tell, whether or not they were the truth, then played devil’s advocate, becoming first the lawyer for the prosecution, then for the defense, because he was a lawyer, and that is the way lawyers think. He did this out of the courtroom, however, and got to keep the witnesses as long as he wanted, or to dismiss them instantly, whichever seemed more advantageous. He was accustomed to hearing his own voice; others lay buried in the landslide of words. He is reported to have made fifty-one phone calls in one night during the Watergate mess—though that was certainly a worse quagmire than most of us ever experience.

Nixon and his team are described by longtime New Yorker writer Jonathan Schell in The Time of Illusion this way: “The Nixon Administration was characterized by, among other things, fragmentation. What the Nixon men thought was unconnected to what they said. What they said was unconnected to what they did. What they did or said they were doing at one moment was unconnected to what they did or said they were doing the next moment. And when they were driven from office, they left behind them not one but several unconnected records of themselves.”

In their feints and dodges, Nixon and his players exhibited a versatility that equaled the range of professional actors. A later leader, Ronald Reagan, would be wittily described by Gore Vidal as “the acting President,” but Nixon may have outdone him in the projection of personal fantasy. Often, Nixon elaborated scenarios he knew would never materialize, tacitly encoura...

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