An Appetite for Liebling
In his warm introduction to Just Enough Liebling, David Remnick describes an experience from his own youth. He was in Paris, at Shakespeare & Company, when a friend found a volume of Liebling in the Used section and handed it to him. Remnick began to read there in the shop and finished the book that same night--it was The Sweet Science, for Liebling the tender, clumsy and noble typist loved the brutality of fighters and the wild airs of the riff-raff who surrounded them. Remnick had never read Liebling before, and I daresay hardly lets a month go by now without dipping into him for consolation. I am bound to admit that before this assignment (and I am older than Liebling was when he died), I honored the name without knowing the books. In a few weeks I have been turned into a connoisseur, tracking down odd titles, marveling at the industry of a man who surely reckoned to give his best or longest hours to the pleasure of the table (and who was also married three times), and who can hardly write a sentence without making you smile.
But then, halfway through the next paragraph, you may find yourself bursting out with laughter, as the joke sinks in--for the joke lies so often in the noble way splendid prose and wry stoicism have drawn a brief veil over all the ordinary forms of hell. It is a sprightliness in the face of everyday horror that held Mark Twain together, and I doubt it will seem funny to everyone. I'm not at all sure a Donald Rumsfeld would find himself in tears several sentences after first reading "Not bad. What do you call it?" A Rumsfeld has other things to cry over, after all, and the faint yet sturdy ingenuity of so much looking on the bright side is not quite what Rummy gives medals for.
Still, you have to wonder how any sane person--even in Paris, with modest English--would let a copy of any Liebling book get away and end up in the Used section. Unless he was in extreme need of some funds with a saving breakfast in the offing.
Or not. Again, it is the marvel in Liebling's touch that no Norwegian could be offended by his treatment of that dry nation and its drier phlegm, just as no one of any other tongue could resist the hilarity of the deadly end-game that the Norwegian captain keeps for any attempts at small talk, that civilized gesture Liebling practiced just because he and the captain of the tanker took every meal together and because Liebling believed in talk with food, just as bees are meant to attend new blossom.
Once, in an effort to make talk, I asked him, "How would you say, 'Please pass me the butter, Mr Petersen,' in Norwegian?' He said, "We don't use 'please' or 'mister.' It sounds too polite. And you never have to say 'pass me' something in a Norwegian house, because the people force food on you, so if you said 'pass' they would think they forgot something and their feelings would be hurt. The word for butter is smor."