Sunday

Mar. 19, 2006

At Last the Secret is Out

by W. H. Auden

SUNDAY, 19 MARCH, 2006
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Poem: "At Last the Secret Is Out" by W. H. Auden from As I Walked Out One Evening © Vintage International. Reprinted with permission.

At Last the Secret Is Out

At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell to the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my dear, there's never smoke without fire.

Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.

For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of the elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Philip Roth, born in Newark, New Jersey (1933). He grew up in a crowded Jewish neighborhood and he always loved listening to the conversations of his neighbors. He said, "In warm weather, people sat on the stoops and on beach chairs in the driveways. [At night] you'd be sweating, trying to sleep, and you'd hear them, you'd hear their conversation all the time, and it would be very comforting."

He said, "Newark [was] the battleground ... between the European family of immigrants ... who clung to the rigorous orthodoxy and the [American] children who wanted to be rid of all that because they sensed immediately that it was useless in this society."

He savored the moments when he was away from his parents and teachers and had a chance to talk freely. He said, "[I loved] going out into Newark, three or four of us, wandering the streets at night, shooting craps in back of the high school with flashlights ... [or] going after your date to this gathering place called Syd's on Chancellor Avenue and telling your ... stories. It was that verbal robustness, people talking, being terrifically funny ... the energy flowing out."

After high school, he left Newark to go to college in Pennsylvania, because, he said, he wanted to see, "the rest of America." He went on to the University of Chicago to study English literature, and it was there that he began to write his first short stories. Roth published a few stories in small literary journals, and then in 1959 he published his story "Defender of the Faith" in The New Yorker magazine, which attracted hundreds of angry letters from Jewish readers, including the Anti-Defamation League, claiming that Roth had insulted the Jewish race by writing about a selfish and conniving Jewish character.

He tried writing a novel with no Jewish characters called When She Was Good (1967), but it wasn't any fun to write. He figured that if everyone thought he was offensive, he might as well try to write a book that was as offensive as possible. That book was Portnoy's Complaint (1969), about Alexander Portnoy, his obsession with sex, and his struggles with his Jewish parents, especially his mother.

He has gone on to write many more novels, most of them narrated by a fictional writer named Nathan Zuckerman, including American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). His novel The Plot Against America came out in 2004.

Roth said, "Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends."


It's the birthday of novelist Irving Wallace, born in Chicago, Illinois (1916). After working in Hollywood for a few years, he got an idea for a novel about the impact of a sex survey on suburban housewives in California. It became The Chapman Report (1960), and it was a huge best-seller, in part because it was so controversial.


It's the birthday of explorer, translator and scholar Sir Richard Burton, born in Devonshire, England (1821). He's known for his translations of The Arabian Nights (1885-88), The Kama Sutra (1883), and The Perfumed Garden (1886).

He explored three continents, often in disguise, becoming the first non-Muslim to enter many Muslim cities. By the end of his life, he spoke over forty different languages and dialects, including Persian, Afghan, Hindustani and Arabic. He spent much of his life searching for the source of the Nile River.


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