Topic: Profiles

Moonrise On the Beach

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On Friday I drove out to the end of Cape Cod to attend a memorial service for an old friend, Arturo Vivante who wrote beautiful short stories, some of them for this magazine. I had planned to visit with him this past April. We had picked a date but when I called a week ahead to make sure he still felt like having a visitor, his daughter, Lydia, answered and told me he had died on April 1. Arturo was 84 and had not been well so it was not a great shock, however, the news provoked a wave of sadness for great things lost. He was not only a wonderful writer but a true friend, gentle soul with compassion and a philosophical outlook on almost everything, including the price of grapes. His voice, at times, was barely audible, which usually caused me to lean closer as I did not want to miss a single word. I have known Arturo probably 20 years, maybe more. As a young man, he was impishly handsome. I have seen pictures. As an older man, one was drawn to the wisdom of his eyes, dark pools of understanding.

Arturo started out in life as a doctor, in Italy, which was his native land. He practiced medicine in Rome until he met Nancy Bradish, an American woman who would become his lifetime partner. In 1958, they married and moved to New York. Arturo had published a couple of short stories in small magazines and then a story was accepted for publication in The New Yorker. This apparently gave him enough confidence in his craft so that he quit his medical practice and within a few years, he and Nancy moved to Wellfleet with their two young daughters, Lucy and the infant, Lydia. There, he took up the life of a full-time writer and all that that entails.

In all, Arturo published more than 70 short stories in The New Yorker. He also published four collections of short stories and three novels along with the occasional play and poems as well. He taught at Bennington and some of his students, most notably Brett Easton Ellis and Donna Tart, emerged from his classes as full-blown, best-selling writers, something he himself never attained. But I never had the feeling he minded this very much. Like the best of writers, Arturo sat back and observed. He listened. Whenever I was with him, I felt I had his complete attention and any small matter I might mention suddenly seemed important and worth discussing.

Arturo loved the ocean. The last time I visited him, he wanted to take me to lunch at his favorite place in Wellfleet, a combination restaurant and bookstore — what could be better? The restaurant had two levels, the upstairs having an open deck that looked out at the ocean. He was not well and had trouble climbing the stairs but that was his wish, to sit on the deck for lunch. So we ascended slowly and chose a table outside. It was a particularly windy day in late spring, not yet comfortable for outdoor dining. Our orders, fried clams and such, practically had to be nailed to the table as everything kept sailing away, especially our napkins. The wind also made it hard to hear those soft Arturo words. But he seemed unperturbed and eventually fell into a spell of looking, gazing out at the water as it tumbled toward us.

His children, who are now in their forties, planned a memorial service for him at his favorite beach. The event was timed to coincide with the rise of the full moon. I arrived in time to find the beach, a high cliff above the ocean, which, because of a hurricane out at sea, was roiling. A large group of Arturo’s friends and family were gathered on the ledge. Below us, on the beach, a perhaps larger group of surfers and their families were sprawled across the wide sands. A half dozen or so surfers were paddling out to catch these impressive combers. Surfers wait for times like these. Surfboards lay on the sand with their fins up, like so many beached sharks. Around them, families picnicked and partied. High flames from several bonfires licked at the gathering darkness. Using a generator to provide electricity, a group of about six musicians were pounding out rock music.

Lydia called us to gather closely so we could hear. It was difficult not only because of her soft voice but also because of the music and the steady roar of the thrashing surf. I cupped my ear. She and Lucy and brother Ben read poems, as did others. At their feet was a big wicker basket adorned with flowers. When they had read all they were going to read, ending with the last poem Arturo had written, the three of them turned and walked down the path toward the water, Lucy carrying the basket. The music stopped, just a coincidence I suppose, but a good one.

We all stood at the edge of the cliff and watched as the three figures became smaller and smaller, skirting the partyers and walking steadily toward the sea. The big waves were rolling in rhythmically and I guessed it was probably high tide or near to it. Arturo’s children stopped at the water’s edge. One at a time, they waded into the waves to cast Arturo’s ashes. Stopping only once to look back at the sea, they climbed back up to the top of the cliff, the basket empty.

They had also provided for us a moveable feast. Big boxes of delectable-looking sandwiches were laid out on a picnic table with wine and melons. As we ate, we talked. One woman, who told me Arturo had used her name as a character in his most recent novel, had come up from Florida to attend the service. She said to me that Arturo was all about love, love, love. It was the only thing for him. “He even used stamps that said ‘love’ on them. Whenever he mailed me a letter, it had a love stamp on it.” Thinking about the letters I had back on my desk, I realized that was true. I overheard an elderly man saying, “That was the quintessential Arturo sentence!” I wanted to know which one. Here we were, a gathering of the faithful, naming his essence, benighting his sentences. It didn’t seem that anyone present was famous or of the glitterati. We were all just Arturo’s friends, each of whom he loved. And whose work and whose heart we loved. I guess he was what one might call the writer’s writer. “I wrote to know the mystery even a small moment holds,” he once said.

Through the dense clouds that had gathered at the end of that extremely hot day, the moon made a brief, if fiery, appearance. At one point, the big orange globe appeared to be an eye closing, as the clouds consumed it.

As I was leaving the beach, a man approached me in the parking lot. “Excuse me,” he said, “but what is the occasion? A wedding?” I told him that it was a memorial service. “A memorial service?” he asked, somewhat incredulous. I was slow to catch on. He somehow thought that the people standing on the cliff and the revelers below on the sand were of one celebration. “And you hired a band for a memorial service?”

I quickly straightened him out. When I was trying to listen to the poetry being read in honor of our friend, I felt it was too bad that the band had to be playing at that particular moment but later I thought about the two events going on simultaneously, the celebration of a life lost and the spontaneous celebration of life and the sea. It seems to me Arturo would have enjoyed watching the revelry below us. I can just see him smiling. His life was like a beautiful sonata, softly crescendoing, quietly receding, his words still with us after he has left.

  • Merrill

    In 1970, I met Arturo at his family villa in Siena, Italy. Over the years, we corresponded, and in the last years of his life, we were in touch very often by letter (and even by e mail, when he finally agreed to learn to use it). I helped him a bit with the mss of his last novel, Truelove Knot, and was honored to review his book of stories, Solitude, for the LA Times on July 24, 2005. For those of you who haven’t yet read those wonderful stories, I urge you to read them. My review is below.

    Thanks, Merrill Joan Gerber

    Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 24, 2005

    Solitude And Other Stories by Arturo Vivante University of Notre Dame Press: 202 pp., $35 cloth, $16.50 paper

    By Merrill Joan Gerber, Merrill Joan Gerber is the author of “This Is a Voice From Your Past: New and Selected Stories” and “Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties.”

    Unlike Chekhov, who called medicine his lawful wife and literature his mistress, Arturo Vivante gave up medicine entirely when, as a young doctor in Rome, he began to sell his stories to the New Yorker and decided writing was his true calling. Both professions require attention to the dimensions of suffering and pain, although Vivante seems to have been drawn more to the pain of the psyche than to the pain of the body. In “Solitude, and Other Stories,” Vivante muses on the essential loneliness of our human existence and our yearning for connection. He describes with delicacy and passion those precious moments when we reach out to another person, or, in some cases, to another creature of nature, and there is a vivid response.

    Many of the tales in “Solitude” are narrated by an itinerant professor who, like Vivante himself, travels far from home to teach at colleges across the United States. In “The Cricket,” the professor is alone in a college-owned house where there is no other creature but a cricket. He is attuned to the cricket’s noises; he comes to depend on the sound and its variations. “The shrill, piercing note had a ubiquitous quality. It filled the room the way its companions outdoors filled the night. The only difference was that outside a choir was playing; this was a solo. And his only company. Playing for him.” When another professor arrives and in total indifference stomps on the cricket, the narrator is horrified.

    In “Reflection,” a middle-aged man admires the beautiful hair of a young woman sitting in front of him on a train. He recalls how his wife has criticized him for his interest in young women, and his daughter once called him a fool for admiring, at a funeral, a girl with “a magnificent shock of red hair.” He thinks: “Why should one ignore beauty at whatever age, of whatever age, and anywhere, anytime, even at a funeral service?”

    “Crosscurrents” describes a man who is low in spirits and without energy but longs to engage in life. Set in Cape Cod, where Vivante has lived for many years, the man lies in bed and feels the wind beckon him to go sailing. “But still he lay, anchored by a sense of inertia and dejection to the bed.” When finally he goes out to sail, “[h]e felt more alive in this shaky old boat than in the safety of his bed. Did speed, instability, danger make one more aware of life than stillness, security, safety? If so … sail out into the open sea. Yes, leave all sluggishness behind.”

    Vivante is a master of capturing the essence of a moment. In “Doves” he describes the courtship of two pigeons, “their iridescent plumage glorious in the sun … their beaks joined as in a kiss…. Then she stood still and crouched while he hopped behind her …. The union lasted no more than a few seconds, but in that time, hidden by the softness of their plumes, in momentary darkness, the fluid of love and life was duly transmitted.”

    Love is a primary force in these stories, although not necessarily the love of a man and his wife. Often, the man, far from home, seeks the comfort of an available woman. In “Osage Orange,” the narrator thinks of a line from a novel: “I’ve never had anything approaching a successful love affair,” and he remembers a night he spent with a woman

  • Mary, What a treat to find your column each issue of the magazine. I also have two of your books. I made rhubarb soup from your recipe and loved it. Some of my friends have asked for the recipe.
    It is great to find a writer that can put into words so many of my feelings. I feel as if I am a part of your New England life even though in fact I am across the country in the central part of Washington state. Thank you for using your talent is such a way that we readers can feel uplifted. Lou

  • I just love your work and hoping you write a second edition to “The View From Mary’s Farm”
    Susan Cole said it perfectly…. exceptionally heartwarming stories… Thank You

  • Isn’t that the way of life-comings and goings (as Mary Elizabeth McClellan would write), one ending and one beginning, a memorial which is really a celebration of life. Don’t you just love that! Thanks, Edie. Doris

  • Another inspiring column…Mary’s Farm is always the 1st. page I turn to in Yankee.

    I can never thank you enough for the exceptionally heart-warming special column of last Thanksgiving. I have never read anything that has come as close to my own thoughts…awakened by the holidays….as that one column. I have read and re-read over an over. It is a one-of-a-kind classic.


  • Barbara

    Thank you for that beautiful quote,”I wrote to know the mystery even a small moment holds.” That may be why many of us write. And thank you for your “blogs”. Your writing is so thoughtful. Have you read May Sarton’s journal, At Seventy? Barbara F.


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