Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Interesting Emendations: A. J. Liebling's "Normandy Revisited"
I’ve just finished reading A. J. Liebling’s 1958 memoir Normandy Revisited. It’s a delicious layer cake of a book. The first layer is Liebling’s recollection of his 1926 sojourn in Lower Normandy, when he was twenty-two. The country gripped him, he says, because “it was the first foreign land I had traveled in alone.” The second layer is his memory of passing through the same region eighteen years later when, as a reporter for The New Yorker, he covered the Allied invasion. About that time, he says, Normandy had a dual character – “nasty going up front, and lovely, fat tranquil farming country a couple of miles back, undisturbed by enemy aviation or artillery.” And the third layer is his account of his 1955 return to Normandy to make sure that, as he says, the events his memories represent “were real.” These layers are so saturated in over-lapping detail that they often blend; many passages contain rich mixtures of all three.
One of my favorite scenes in Normandy Revisited occurs in the chapter titled “The Hounds with Sad Voices,” in which Liebling searches for and eventually finds a château, where he and other members of the press stayed for a week after the Allied troops broke through the German lines. I enjoy descriptions of house interiors. A detailed description of a room, it seems to me, goes a long way towards describing the life lived in it. Liebling’s description of his recollection of the baroque chateau’s interior is a beauty:
This family had enjoyed another period of prosperity in a more recent era, to judge from the vestiges of the chic of the early Third Republic that cluttered the house, like props for the production of a dramatic version of Bel-Ami. There were trophies of African spears and Arab scimitars on the walls, which were papered with an imitation of brocade, and faded green plush portieres drooped crazily from valences askew. Notably there was a stuffed leopard, its lips pulled back in a savage snarl from teeth that were no longer present. Age affects the grip even of plaster gums. The background of the leopard’s rosettes had faded to the color of bad California white wine. Most of the furniture was crank and perilous to sit upon.
As the above extract shows, Liebling had a splendid eye for detail. I love that “faded green plush portieres drooped crazily from valences askew.” Interestingly, there’s another version of this passage. Normandy Revisited is composed mostly of articles written for The New Yorker. In an exquisite piece called “Revisited Normandy: In Quest of a Gray Granite House” (The New Yorker, November 16, 1957), Liebling provides the following description:
The family owning this house, though, had enjoyed another, later period of prosperity, to judge by the vestiges of early Third Republic chic that cluttered the place, like props for a dramatic version of “Bel-Ami.” There were trophies – African spears and Arab scimitars and Tuareg shields – hanging on the walls, which were covered with a paper imitation of brocade, and faded green plush draperies drooped crazily from valences that formed St. Andrew’s crosses against the window frames. Notably, there was a stuffed leopard, its lips pulled back in a savage snarl from teeth no longer present. The field of the leopard’s rosettes had faded to the color of bad California white wine. Most of the furniture was cranky and perilous.
Compare the book’s “to judge from the vestiges of the chic of the early Third Republic” with the magazine’s slightly tighter “to judge by the vestiges of early Third Republic chic.” Compare also the book’s “like props for the production of a dramatic version of Bel-Ami” to the magazine’s more concise “like props for a dramatic version of Bel-Ami.” Notice the additional “Tuareg shields” on the walls in the New Yorker version. Notice, too, that the walls in the New Yorker version are “covered with a paper imitation of brocade,” whereas the walls in the book version are “papered with an imitation of brocade.” “Portieres” in the book is simply “draperies” in the magazine. And, instead of the book’s “drooped crazily from valences askew,” the magazine has “drooped crazily from valences that formed St. Andrew’s crosses against the window frames.” Regarding the stuffed leopard, the New Yorker version omits the observation made in the book that “Age affects the grip even of plaster gums.” Both versions are wonderful, but I think I prefer the extra detailing (“Tuareg shields,” “St. Andrew’s crosses”) of the New Yorker passage.
Almost every paragraph of “Revisited Normandy: In Quest of a Gray Granite House” differs in some way or other from the book’s version. I find the variations fascinating. Comparing them provides a glimpse of a great stylist fine-tuning his composition.
Credit: The above portrait of A. J. Liebling is by David Levine. It appears in The New York Review of Books (November 18, 2004), as an illustration for Russell Baker's "A Great Reporter at Large."