Madeleines – And Hong Kong Egg Cakes – From Reading About Alice By Calvin Trillin1
Reading Calvin (Bud) Trillin’s2 About Alice, his loving portrait of his wife, Alice, who died September 11, 2001 and the life they shared, triggered my recall of Studs Terkel’s lament on the loss of his wife, Ida,3 less than three weeks after Julie’s death:
Now that she’s gone, Who will laugh at my jokes?
I know what you mean, Studs. And, I’d wager, so does Bud.
An Audience Of One
The notion of an audience of one is promoted by fundamentalist Christians who focus their energies exclusively on pleasing God and by marketing consultants who instruct clients and devise campaigns to communicate with the individual consumer.
For some of us, however, the audience of one is the person with whom we share our bed and raise our family.
Consider this passage from a column written by Garry Wills two weeks after the death of Ida Terkel:
He [Studs Terkel] called her [Ida Terkel] his best critic, and always sought the supreme accolade from the one person who was not flustered by his fame.
She alone still called him by his given name, Louis, not his nickname, Studs.
Once, after he had appeared in a panel discussion, he hurried out to the audience to ask her, “How did I do?”
She gave him her quiet smile and said, “You did just fine, Louis.”
Studs also gave Ida his drafts to read prior to submitting them to the publisher and featured her, under pseudonyms, in his stories.
But one reason About Alice is, after all, the subject of this post is this excerpt that resonates with me so intensely that reading it becomes emotionally disorienting:
For one reason or another, I barely got to speak to her that evening [at the party where they first met]. Two weeks later, though, after doing some intelligence work and juggling some obligations and dismissing as hearsay the vague impression of one mutual acquaintance that Alice was virtually engaged, I dashed back from a remote suburb to a party that I figured she’d be attending. So I couldn’t claim that I just wandered into that second party; in romantic matters, even those who need to depend mainly on dumb luck are usually up to one or two deliberate moves.
At the second party, I did get to talk to her quite a lot. In fact, I must have hardly shut up. I was like a lounge comic who had been informed that a booker for The Tonight Show was in the audience. Recalling that party in later years, Alice would sometimes say, “You have never again been as funny as you were that night.”
“You mean I peaked in December of 1963?” I’d say, twenty or even thirty years later.
“I’m afraid so.”
But I never stopped trying to match that evening—not just trying to entertain her but trying to impress her. Decades later—after we had been married for more than thirty-five years, after our girls were grown—I still wanted to impress her. I still knew that if I ever disappointed her in some fundamental way—if I ever caused her to conclude that, after all was said and done, she should have said no when, at the end of that desperate comedy routine, I asked her if we could have dinner sometime—I would have been devastated. …
I showed Alice everything I wrote in rough draft—partly because I valued her opinion but partly because I hoped to impress her. If the piece was meant to be funny, the sound of laughter from the next room was a great reward. The dedication of the first book I wrote after I’d met her, a collection of comic short stories, said, until I decided that the last few words were too corny, “These stories were written for Alice—to make her giggle.” When I wrote in the dedication of a book “For Alice,” I meant it literally. In that sense, the headline on her obituary in the Times was literally true, as well as in the correct order: it described her as “Educator, Author and Muse.”
When Alice died, I was going over the galleys of a novel about parking in New York—a subject so silly that I think I would have hesitated to submit the book to a publisher if she hadn’t, somewhat to her surprise, liked it. When the novel was published, the dedication said, “I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice.”
Because About Alice is only 78 pages long, appeared as a modestly shorter essay, “Alice, Off the Page,” in the March 27, 2006 New Yorker, and has been heavily reviewed, readers are likely to have already been exposed to this portion of the book. This familiarity may attenuate the importance of these paragraphs as the fulcrum of About Alice. That would be a loss for the reader.
What About Alice Is And Is Not About
About Alice is not about Alice’s lung cancer, its first remission, its recurrence, the probability that her parents’ almost constant smoking may have been a causative factor, her forbearance of the debilitating treatment, or any of the other details of her disease or treatment, although that information is provided in the book.
Nor is About Alice a biography of Alice, although her accomplishments, her friendships, and even her physical beauty are laid before the reader.
Nor does About Alice fit on the thanatological bookshelf. The Five Stages Of Grief Elizabeth Kübler-Ross specified (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) appear to be insufficient for some who require one additional step en route to psychological equilibrium: Publication.
About Alice has little in common with the exhaustively detailed and excruciatingly painful intrapsychic excursion Joan Didion describes in The Year of Magical Thinking, written after the death of her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne.4
Nor is About Alice the kind of elegant discourse on desolation, loss, and disease represented by the lovely poetry (that I treasure) written by Donald Hall after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon.
And, wonderfully enough, About Alice is almost devoid of advice, a crucial differentiation from the genre in which Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven currently star, the set of spiritual instructions manuals, and the more sectarian didactic books such as the Handbook of Death and Dying (2 Vol. Set).5
Striving To Impress and Happy Marriages
My contention is that spending ones days striving to win the admiration of an altogether admirable wife (or, I suppose, the admiration of an altogether admirable husband although I’m less sure of that) may not guarantee an outrageously happy marriage but does place that status within reach.
Striving to impress that one beloved individual also ensures a certain focus. I noted at the beginning of this post that Alice Trillin died on September 11, 2001. It happened that she died in New York. That others in that city perished that day is, appropriately and tellingly, never referenced by Trillin in About Alice.
About Alice is a glorious book that anyone who has been or wants to be in love deserves to read.
My only bitterness from reading About Alice is that Trillin’s skills and audience far exceed my own. Julie played George to my Gracie as Alice did for Calvin, and I’ve spent the more than 30 years since I met Julie, including those years we were both married to others and the years since her death, trying to win her admiration, sometimes managing to do so. My whinging regarding About Alice is limited to my realization that Julie deserves, but I can’t provide, accolades of the sort Trillin bestows on Alice in this book.
Outrageously happy marriage,6 not so incidentally, is the phrase I’ve habitually used to describe my life with Julie in conversations, in this blog, and even as part of my online dating profile.
I’m willing to share it with Calvin and Alice.
About Those Hong Kong Egg Cakes In The Title
Those familiar with my previous 1HeckOfAGuy.com blog know that I routinely title posts dealing with books I’ve read in the format of “Madeleines From Reading X,” referencing Proust’s culinary memory stimulator. In this case, the title would have been Madeleines From Reading Calvin Trillin’s About Alice.
I once read, however, in Trillin’s book, Family Man, about
Hong Kong egg cakes – delicacies whose taste I [Calvin Trillin] once described as ‘what a madeleine would taste like if the French really understood such things.’
Given my long-standing fondness of Trillin’s writing and my rapture with About Alice, I decided that, for today only, a menu substitution was called for.
Besides, that’s the kind of clever gesture that would amuse and, maybe, impress Julie.
Hong Kong Cakes, also called gai daan jai, are a bit like waffles.
Proust’s emblematic pastry
Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.
Note: Originally posted Mar 28, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com
- In “Remembrance Of Things Past,” Proust’s memory is triggered by a madeleine cake. On occasion, I find nuggets in books, music, videos, TV, or theater that perform a comparable kind of magic, revealing something beyond their own content. I post these observations under titles in the format of “Madeleines From Reading X” and collect them in the category Madeleines. [↩]
- As most readers will know, Trillin is the author of more than a dozen books as well as innumerable columns, essays, and magazine articles, others serious discourses, and still others rather silly and delightful fiction. [↩]
- Ida (Goldberg) was a compassionate and energetic activist who worked for political and social causes, in relief efforts, and with children. She was known for her fearless stances against those forces she considered oppressive. Studs, in fact, reported that he was jealous that her FBI file was thicker than his own. An online eulogy from the Chicago Sun-Times provides a concise summary of her life and work: Ida Terkel, 87, Social Activist, `Best Critic’ Of Famous Husband [↩]
- Calvin Trillin is a close friend of Joan Didion and spoke at John Dunne’s funeral. Dunne, in fact, in his memoir, Harp, wrote that he had at one time arranged that, should he suddenly die, Calvin Trillin was to inform his and Didion’s only child, Quintana. According to a review of About Alice by Hillel Italie, Didion noted that “Trillin was one of the few people who understood how she felt, able to laugh with her at the remarks others would make. She remembers him coming over to console, not with advice, but with food.” [↩]
- I am willing to stipulate that these inspirational and “how-to” books are helpful to some since I can’t otherwise explain the 5-star ratings on Amazon. Personally, however, I find them cloying and counterproductive. Go figure. [↩]
- Actually, there was a rotation consisting primarily of “outrageously happy marriage,” “phenomenally happy marriage,” and “outrageously wonderful marriage.” [↩]