Bernard Levin Remembered
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I first met Bernard Levin on a "Face the Music" panel. I was there as a curiosity – a woman with a foreign accent, elected president of the Cambridge Union. He was there as a celebrated columnist for the London Times, an intellectual with an encyclopedic knowledge of music. It was 1971. I was 21, he was 42. He knew nothing about me. I had had a major intellectual crush on him ever since I discovered his writings while at Girton. I had devoured his book "The Pendulum Years," and would meticulously cut his columns, underline them, and save them in a file (no, I did not put pressed flowers in the file, but might as well have). So when I found out that he was on the panel, I was reduced to a bundle of inarticulateness. I'm still amazed that in my fog, I actually managed to recognize Schuman's Fourth Symphony.
At the end of the taping, he asked me out to dinner the following week. All I remember is that I spent the week prepping, getting myself up to date on Northern Ireland, the latest developments in the Soviet Union, and the latest Wagner recordings. I must have bored him to death, because for the second date, he took me to Covent Garden to see Wagner's "The Mastersingers." As you probably have guessed by now, I spent the time between the dinner and the opera date reading about "The Mastersingers," and considering more has been written about Wagner than anyone else except Jesus Christ, there was a lot to read. I thought of that night as soon as I heard the news of Bernard's death, because, as the curtain was going up, he whispered to me: "That's the opera I want to hear just before I die."
We started a relationship which was to last until the end of 1980, when I left London to move to New York. And he was, in many ways, the reason I left London. I was by then 30, still deeply in love with him, but longing to have children. He, on the other hand, never wanted to get married or have children. What was touching is that he saw this not as a badge of independence and freedom but as a character flaw, almost a handicap. As he wrote in 1983 in his book "Enthusiasms," which he movingly dedicated to me even though we were no longer together: "What fear of revealing, of vulnerability, of being human, grips us so fiercely, and above all why? What is it that, down there in the darkness of the psyche, cries its silent No to the longing for Yes?" It was a No that often coincided with retreating into depression – the "black dog" that he described as "that dark lair where the sick soul's desire for solitude turns into misanthropy."
No wonder he loved cats so much. "Above all," he wrote once, "I love the detachment of cats, their willingness to be loved but not to respond beyond a certain, very clearly defined point; no cat ever gave its entire heart to any human being." And no wonder I decided to move not just cities, but continents. Our lives in London were so inextricably intertwined that in December 1980, I left for New York. A quarter of a century later, I can still feel how tough and painful that decision was. He wasn't just the big love of my life, he was a mentor as a writer, and a role model as a thinker. My biography of Maria Callas, published in 1980, is dedicated to him: "Without his unfailing support and understanding," I wrote in the acknowledgements, "and without the long hours he spent reading, criticizing and improving, I wondered sometimes whether there would be a book at all."
Breakfast in his kitchen in the flat he rented on Devonshire Place was a liberal education. Every single morning newspaper and all the weeklies were spread on the kitchen table, with Bernard alternately lapsing into rage, disgust, amazement, or amusement, all volubly shared with me. The only response to the morning news he never felt was detachment.
Even though he was no longer a theater critic, many Saturdays were spent seeing two or sometimes three plays, starting off, off Westend. (I just realized that I never saw a movie with him.) And of course anything he loved, he wrote about – whether it was a new play (especially a new Tom Stoppard play), or lobster, or Kiri Te Kanawa, or Glyndebourne, or Solzhenitsyn. I remember really disliking his columns about food. It was one of our few arguments, because on personal matters, his mode was not to argue, but to withdraw.
We spent three summers touring 3-star restaurants in France, and music festivals in Austria and Germany. And one of the summers I found myself rebelling by ordering grilled fish and vegetables every time while he waxed lyrical over one complicated French marvel after another. He never drove, so I did all the driving on these vacations, and he kept me royally entertained with stories about the places we were passing, or the operas, or the music we were going to hear, or, God save us, the food we were going to eat. One day in Salzburg, he stayed in the hotel to write, and I went shopping. I ended up being gone for hours, and he ended up calling the police.
Bernard's substitute for the family he never had were his friends. He was passionate about them. He observed every birthday, every anniversary, as though they were religious landmarks, and he loved the rituals of friendship: the annual visit to Glyndebourne with male friends from his youth; a week in the summer at Fleur Cowles' and Tom Meyer's house in Spain; the annual visit to Wexford, the little opera festival in Ireland he had put on the map. So for his fiftieth birthday I organized for him a surprise birthday party with all his closest friends. What made it more complicated was that we had rented a house in the south of France, and had to bring everybody there! John Burgh, one of Bernard's best friends, and former President of Trinity College in Oxford, was my co-conspirator. A plane was chartered to bring over 50 friends to Bernard, and I got everybody we had met in the area to put somebody up. It was a great three days, and I'll always remember how much it meant to him.
Even so, there was always what he described in the introduction to one of his column anthologies as "the gnawing feeling that ultimate reality lies elsewhere, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, sensed just beyond the light cast by the camp-fire, heard in the slow movement of a Mozart quartet, seen in the eyes of Rembrandt's last self-portraits, felt in the sudden stab of discovery in reading or seeing a Shakespeare play thought familiar in every line."
He was ruthlessly honest about that "gnawing" and about the fact that he spent a large part of his life barricading himself against it. He tried therapy, he tried Insight, a self-awareness seminar that I had helped bring to London, a stint in an ashram in India. Lesser souls would have avoided the ridicule that was heaped on him for his spiritual "search" by simply keeping it to himself. But he didn't, because anything he was touched by he had to write about.
A couple of months after I left London for New York, Bernard called me to tell me that he had decided to take a drastic action. He was planning to resign, both as a columnist for the Times, and as a book reviewer for the Sunday Times, and take a sabbatical without a date set for returning to work "to follow" as he put it, "the beckoning light wherever it might lead." Eighteen months later, in October 1982, he was back at the Times. During that time he came to see me in New York. In fact, we stayed in close touch until our last meeting a year ago.
I was in London with my daughters. The Alzheimer's was by then sufficiently advanced that I could no longer talk to him on the phone, so I called Liz Anderson, who had been a true gift in his life, to arrange to see him. That was when she told me that Bernard's condition had so deteriorated that she had to arrange for him to be moved to a home. We decided that he would be brought to the Berkeley where I was staying so we could have tea – another favorite ritual of his. "Arianna," she warned me, "he may not recognize you." The warning, however, did not prepare me for the shock of not being recognized, especially because Bernard looked exactly the same – as always fastidiously dressed and mannered. Except he turned down the tea and asked for water. And then, no matter what memories, nicknames, shared moments I brought up, there was no connection. I went back to my room and wept.
I had been with him at the beginning of the journey into this other world with no bridge to ours. It was 1988 when he had come to stay with me in Santa Barbara, and we had made the round of doctors in Los Angeles to find out why he kept losing his balance or was not able to retrieve certain words. Looking back, it is astonishing that nobody diagnosed it as a very early stage of Alzheimer's.
The hardest time was four years later. By then, we were living in Washington, and he came to stay with me there. The medium he had mastered – words – now kept eluding him. It was such a cruel turn of fate. The man who could recite entire Shakespeare passages without faltering was now struggling to find a simple, everyday word lost in the recesses of his memory. "I fell to speculating," he wrote once, "about what it would be like to be a prisoner in reality instead of fantasy, and came to the astonishing and disturbing conclusion that provided I could read and write what I liked, and had a congenial cell-mate (or better still, a sentence of solitary confinement), I would not find it nearly so terrible as I surely ought to." But the key things that would have made his prison bearable were reading and writing, and now they were becoming tragically hard. And increasingly, all that was left was the prison.
"I can't take this," he kept saying. "I'd rather be dead." The last time I saw him happy was three years ago when we had lunch with my daughters around the corner from the new flat he and Liz were sharing. He put on a show for the girls. The old Bernard: charming, debonaire, funny, on top of the world. Christina and Isabella, who had known him ever since they were babies since he was always in and out of our lives, were now old enough (12 and 10 at the time) to appreciate the glimpse of the old fire they got just before it was extinguished.
He had been the first person I called, after my parents, to let him know that Michael and I were getting married. He flew to New York for the wedding a week early, and was by my side right down to helping me place the 400 guests at the post-wedding dinner. The man I had so desperately wanted to marry and spend my life with was now helping me with all the logistics as I was about to walk down the aisle. It didn't make any sense, and yet it was perfectly natural. As was the fact that when I lost my first baby when I was over 5 months pregnant in 1987, Bernard insisted that I do not cancel the benefit I was chairing for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. "I'll fly out and do all the work for you," he said. "It will take your mind off losing the baby." And he did fly out, and he brought Maggie Smith with him, and he did do all the work for me, writing the most brilliant piece for Maggie Smith and Alec McCowen to perform. He once again was there for me, and it was a huge success. ("And then came the magic," wrote the Washington Post. "From the balcony actors Alec McCowen and Maggie Smith, in a production by Bernard Levin, read excerpts from Shakespeare's greatest hits, making "a virtue of necessity" if the "truth were known." And then, as they "trippingly on the tongue" said: "Our revels now are ended ... our little life is rounded with a sleep.")
I still have on my desk a little plaque he gave me after he had finished editing my second book in the middle seventies: "You can break every grammatical and syntactical rule consciously when, and only when, you have rendered yourself incapable of breaking them unconsciously." But grammar and syntax and a horror of cliches and mixed metaphors ("try drawing this," he would tell me) were the least things he taught me. The most important was his passion against injustice, against the totalitarian, fanatical mindset, against the follies of those set in authority over us.
But just as powerful was his reverence for anyone fighting the good fight. The other side of his scathing prose was his capacity for hero-worship. And he transmitted that to me too. And through all the joys and pain of our own relationship, he remained to the end a hero to me.