‘W.M. Spackman is often called the literary heir to F. Scott Fitzgerald—his tense, despairing young men of tarnished Depression-era America serving as the natural next generation to Fitzgerald’s glittery Roaring Twenties youths. The same people, attending the same parties and drinking the same bootleg alcohol, inhabit the Long Island Sound of Gatsby and the brownstone apartments of Spackman’s Princeton cohorts:
Around one or two in the morning, at most parties of that era, the milling company would begin to dwindle, and take on a kind of planetary movement, like an orrery, endlessly tangential and revolving. Constellations of guests would widen or contract, sidereal outlines swaying and loosening and re-forming under the hurtling impact of accretions flung loose from other revolving or decomposing worlds and seeking new orbits to join; a whole galaxy would explode in a sudden surge for drinks all round, to scatter carrying with them to other spheres, in a rain of fiery intellectual matter, the jokes, the topics, the disputes, the ideas, which the parent-star had generated to a white and whirling heat.
‘(Some poets see the universe in a grain of sand. Some see it in a frat party.)
‘The same girls flutter around looking decorative and delicious, the same boys hover near them looking hungry, and all have the same jaded regard for the future, as if living in the moment were the only option. But the guests at Gatsby’s parties think the future is not worth worrying over, while those in Spackman’s world know it has been lost to them before they ever had a chance to seize it.
‘Heyday, like Gatsby, is about a man pursing a girl—each of them planets in their own orbit, each feeling the pull of the other’s gravity. The novel is somewhat awkwardly structured but beautifully told, sliding from one shimmering scene to the next while capturing both the charged hopelessness and the defiant gaiety of a generation robbed of its promise. Within the space of a few pages we hear why each of four men from the Class of ’27 committed suicide, and an account of a crisis at a dinner party where the escort hired to even out the seating turns out, unexpectedly, to be socially connected. Bright language and bitter humor are the hallmarks of Heyday; optimism, less so.
‘Most readers familiar with Spackman’s work discovered him not through his first novel, but his second. Heyday had long been out of print by the time Gordon Lish, editor of Esquire, came across serialized sections of the new book in an issue of Canto and demanded the editors at Knopf (who had rejected it the first time around) look at it again. It wasn’t that they had passed on it because they didn’t like the novel, but because a book about—how did I put it?—a man having a midlife crisis was not thought to be very marketable at the height of the feminist revolution. By 1978, though, the revolution was either over or no longer a threat to book sales, so when Lish brought the manuscript back around Knopf said yes. An Armful of Warm Girl, and its author (now in his 70s), finally found a publishing house to call home.
‘The melancholy tones of Heyday are not to be found in An Armful of Warm Girl. The main character, Nicholas Romney, is one of those Princeton boys from the era of Heyday, now “aged fifty years or as good as.” He’s irascible but charming, and has done well, bearing all the accoutrements of that success—a wife, a country estate with a folly, a wastrel son, a country club membership, a frivolous daughter—with the full sense of entitlement that this is how life should to be. So he is shocked, on returning from one of his golf games, to find that his wife is leaving him for reasons she doesn’t bother to spell out—presumably because they are self-evident. (They are not self-evident to Nicholas.)
‘In a bad temper he goes into town, digs out his 17-year-old little black book, and starts calling old girlfriends. After a few frustrating dead ends, he eventually reaches Victoria (now Mrs. Barclay) and informs her that his marriage is over, so why doesn’t she come have a drink with him?
‘It was at about this point in the novel that I started to feel real sympathy for my friends who were put off by Gatsby or Jane Austen. What a bunch of dithering, useless people!
The thing is, Spackman dithers beautifully:
Here were the rooms they’d made love in, the hallways of what greetings, what partings, the oval stair’s half landing too where once—Had she no memory of their love’s landscapes? or saw him as he, ah how constantly, saw her, coming toward him along some unforgotten perspective, some Roman street that year, a via, a viale, racing toward him waving perhaps, eyes shining
It is hard to stop reading. Every sentence seems to tumble the reader headlong into the next. His style flows seamlessly between Nicholas’s internal monologue and external dialogue, between half-conversations and interrupted thoughts as he pursues his old mistress (she is willing to be pursued) and manage the infatuation of one of his daughter’s friends (but he does not mind being pursued by her, oh no—not at all). It’s all done so smoothly that when the author does toss in a pointed barb it cuts through the language so sharply that you laugh before you even realize what you’ve read.
“[w]ho were all these children? by god they baffled him, this generation, they appeared to think sex was a branch of psychotherapy.”
‘The phrase most often used to describe Spackman’s books is “comedy of manners,” so the Austen comparisons are oddly apropos, given that one writes about marriage and the other about adultery; one author concerned with the qualities of a good character and one whose philosophy of life might be summed up by Nicholas’s own opinion about morality:
What is this business of homilies anyhow but mankind’s fatuous and age-old yearning for the Book of Answers! There never had been answers; never would be; merely a linguistic mistake of Greek philosophy’s we’d taken over, that if the word existed the thing it denoted existed too. Why, the only serious desiderata for a normal Indo-European are a pretty girl within grabbing range, a dazing drink, and somebody to knock down.
— Nicki Leone
Reading W. M. Spackman, by Jeremy M. Davies
An American arcadia: the novels of W. M. Spackman
W. M. Spackman – He has the power to make you believe you are engaged in an important act merely by reading him.
When Style Is Content: A Run-In with the Fiction of W.M. Spackman
On the Decay of Criticism: the Complete Essays of W.M. Spackman
W.M. Spackman: Games of Love and Language
Old Bestsellers: Heyday, by W. M. Spackman
Bafflement And Desire
The man Lish fought for
Words I Have Had To Look Up While Reading “The Complete Fiction Of W.M. Spackman”
Buy ‘Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman’
The manuscript of An Armful of Warm Girl
Dalkey Archive Press, 1997
W. M. Spackman, a writer and classicist who in a burst of creativity late in life became the author of five novels, died on Friday at his home in Princeton, N.J.
Mr. Spackman, who was 85 years old, suffered from prostate cancer, said his daughter, Harriet Newell of Carmel, Calif.
William Mode Spackman wrote novels of romance, but they were by no means romance novels. His style, one couched in prose that drew the admiration of critics and comparisons with the work of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, dealt with male-female relationships with sympathy, humor and knowledgeable understanding.
Alice Quinn, poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine, who was his editor at Alfred A. Knopf, said yesterday, ”Mr. Spackman was a radiant human being and a radiant writer, a writer of great charm and high style, who took as his subject men and women who really liked and enjoyed each other.”
Mr. Spackman’s first novel, ”Heyday,” about the Princeton University class of 1927, of which he was a member, was published in 1953. His second, ”An Armful of Warm Girl,” was issued in 1978, when he was 72 years old. Yet another, ”As I Sauntered Out, on Mid-Century Morning,” is awaiting publication.
The scope of Mr. Spackman’s sweep of literature drew the attention of John Leonard in a review of a Spackman novel in The New York Times in 1980.
” ‘A Presence With Secrets ‘ is every bit as delightful as ‘An Armful of Warm Girl,’ if somewhat less shapely, and just as much a comedy of manners, even if those manners belong more to the 18th century than to the 20th,” Mr. Leonard wrote. ”Perhaps that is one of his points: the 20th century will make its claims, even on artists and lovers; history and absurdity take no prisoners.”
The author, who was born in 1905 in Coatesville, Pa., was removed as editor of Princeton’s Nassau Literary Magazine while an undergraduate. The university president, John Grier Hibben, suppressed an issue that contained what he called the ”most sacrilegious and obscene articles” he had ever seen in print. About Mr. Spackman, he said: ”I understand that he has been reading a good deal of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and T. S. Eliiot and other of the modernists in literature. He has evidently been well soaked in this type of literature and has tried to go the writers one better.”
After graduation, Mr. Spackman became a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford. Later he worked as a Rockefeller Fellow in opinion research at Columbia University, as a radio writer, as a public relations executive and a literary critic. He also taught classics at New York University and the University of Colorado. His other novels are ”A Difference in Design,” and ”A Little Decorum.” ”On the Decay of Humanism” is a volume of essays.
In 1984, he received the Howard D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for ”work that merits recognition for the quality of its prose style.”
He is survived by his second wife, Laurice Macksoud Spackman; Mrs. Newell and his son, Peter Spackman of Newton, Mass., his children by his first wife, Mary Ann Matthews Spackman, who died in 1978; eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. — NYT
W.M. Spackman An Armful of Warm Girl
Alfred A. Knopf
‘[Spackman’s] mature fiction offers a series of blithely moneyed, cavalierly attractive (and single) heroes whom one might conjecture to be Spackman unbound—a shining collegian never chastened by reality… As a writer, Spackman sought what Henry James, in The Golden Bowl, nicely termed ‘the convenience of a society so placed that it had only its own sensibility to consider’… [The] fifth [novel of the collection], As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning, was in the editorial works when death overtook Spackman, who was a notable example of geriatric blooming or of neglected genius, depending on how you look at it… Spackman settled to his subject: men and women doing courtship dances, captured with a [Henry] Greenian precision of fluttering utterance and insistent sensual detail. No more sweating to be a Darwinian Fitzgerald or a patrician Steinbeck: everything is to be oblique, indolent, Watteauesque. In Green’s subtly mandarin style… Spackman found a way to flow, picking up every vary and hesitation of the human voice and bending syntax to imbue descriptive prose with the feathery breath of speech… [H]is fiction comes as a revelation. No American writer was more thoroughly captivated than Spackman.’ — The New Yorker
What he’d first thought of feeding his Victoria was an early-summer lunch out of Paul Reboux: a cool gazpacho, then a little glazed crème de cervelle (which, as he wouldn’t inform her was cervelle, she’d love), followed by a pink-fleshed lake trout garnished in two shades of green, viz., artichoke hearts and green mayonnaise, and end with a vanilla ice gleaming with slivers of almond and slivers of truffles. But then he remembered she made a tiresome fuss at truffles, which she held were not merely orated but rubbery, so after trying in vain to find frais de bois he had just this cherry tart with a crème aux marrons piped onto it in rococo swags.
That then was what she arrived looking lovely to eat.
All beyond was in deep darkness, under he saw thick mist above, night-glow from the luminous city around them thrown up saffron against filmy overcast, to be drawn in there, under great lifting curtains and pale coils of cloud, so that light was shed back down too faint anywhere, he hardly made out what this window gave on, below, muffled in black geometries of shadow; a small private square it seemed. And even elegant, a seicento façade over across, arcaded and ornate, the galleria a run of rounded arches all along it, also what must be the shape of a fountain, some spouting nymph he supposed, or riding marble waves a boy and dolphin, anyhow he heard the cold splash of water on stone. Silence again too everywhere, only damp breaths of night-sound rising like exhalations from dark streets and squares, where at last it smelt of spring.
So ecco, he said over his shoulder, in reassurance, and let the long folds of the curtain swing down straight again—there was nothing; had been nothing; late-night passanti scuffling. In any case not that rabble they’d run into, or anything like. But this without looking round at her, for he thought fright, yes, but also the delicate point now was, more likely, how with kindness to get her over what she was so stricken had happened, this helpless shock at herself he supposed: trouble with innocence was historical perspective, it had still to learn what was praxis. So, first, then, deal also with this woebegone nudity. Engaging or not.
There should be the usual toweling vestaglie warming on pipes in the bathroom. Where when he went to look there of course were. So he draped himself in one and brought her the other, saying amiably, here, put this round her pretty shoulders, she couldn’t spend her life under these comic European eiderdowns could she? while he saw to the fire.
On whose incandescent hummocks of ember he took his time shaking from the scuttle dribblings of fresh coal. Culm, it appeared: soft dusts kindled instantly, showering sparks, then soon the whole hearth glowed again, strewing its roses deep into the room’s vaults of shadow, so that when he turned round at last and found great innocent eyes dolefully upon him, those crimsons fluttering in her cheek anyone would have taken for hopeless blushing, so deep among the bed’s canopies of night had the hearth distributed its insubstantial emblems.
And blushing she may have been—helplessly not even he supposed being sure merely what next, or expected to know, for in the fire-fringed shadows she dropped her eyes from his to her cold hands. It seemed she could not speak for misery. Or gêne, for he saw it might be she had no idea what in this situation a girl found—desperately, or even at all—to say. A topic, even. Or, generally, what was, well, expected!
This unforeseen . . . could he label it “threshold-ritual”? anthropologically speaking it had been gone through like an angel, but on from there is not so near second nature. Including light drawing-room conversation if called for.
So, humanely, and still from across the room, imagine, he said to her (as if in complaint), getting caught in another of these pointless Mediterranean revolutions, what a damn’ nuisance. Assuming revolution was actually what it was, for he said genially he hardly thought Italy, Firenze anyhow, was a place any practical-minded Marxist would pick to start one. With their millennial history of total political cynicism? And all the black-marketable antiquities!
But she said in a shamed voice, “I thought we were going to die.”
Yes, well, after a moment he conceded, he supposed it was mostly that ominous lowering sound of a mob coming, like a typhoon. It was daunting; daunted anybody. So in pure primitive reflex people turned and ran. Whereas she’d seen for herself all they’d really needed to do, she and he, was step into the nearest doorway, or a courtyard, or anywhere out of the way. He was appalled he’d frightened her by not doing that on the spot. Instead of haring off first like a fool—luxurious as this pensione (or whatever it was) had in the event turned out to be.
But still it seemed she could not look at him, it was such a hopelessness, only murmuring something downcast about “. . . una condotta di collegio . . .” as if she did not see how, in English, she could possibly ever bring herself to face such a thing.
p.s. Hey. First of all, Carrie McEnroe, yesterday’s guest-host, sent me this message to pass along to you: “Hi everyone, thank you for your wonderful responses to my cakes. Because I’m a bit phobic about my “online presence” I asked Dennis to share this general show of gratitude for me. I’ll try to answer your questions where I can. Bill, the Damien Hirst cake is one I found online. I believe both the figure and the water (gelatin) are edible. I believe the container isn’t but I am not sure. Jamie, I think I will have to save explaining which cakes are mine for another time but I’m happy you liked the footballer because that is one of mine. JM, I’m not a commercial baker. I am often urged to become one and I think about it but I just make the cakes for my own interest. I document them and sometimes donate them to charity auctions or eat them with my friends. Misanthrope, Well my cakes taste good, I can tell you that and not to toot my own horn. Thank you to everyone else for your friendly and nice words. Best wishes, Carrie” ** David Ehrenstein, Hi, D. Yeah, ‘Scott Pilgrim’s’ in my cue. ** Steve Erickson, I agree about his interesting trajectory. I always had a feeling that there were a lot of possibilities in his work. I do like ‘Flower Boy’, yes. I find myself ‘spinning’ it quite a bit, as recently as the other day. ** Bill, Hi. Ha ha, there were trashcans like that everywhere in the park in the form of old drunk guys, screaming babies, people talking in their sleep, etc. ** Bernard, Oh, no, about the Ozon. I think he’s an interesting filmmaker in general. I’m never sorry I see his films. It’s just that some really nail it and some seem vaguely wanting. Interesting about those letters. I ‘dumped’ all my correspondence in the Fales Archive pretty willy-nilly. One of these days I want to sit down and see who we all were again. How is the writing going? It sounds like you’re on it. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Thanks, yeah, the trip was a boon. Now I have re-find my workaholic side somehow, ha ha. A twisted place is the mind’s Efteling if you ask me, so have lots of fun there. My day … trying to get back to work not too successfully. Oh, I had sent a link to ‘PGL’ to John Waters, who was very supportive of Zac’s and my first film, and yesterday I got the most amazing email from him saying how much he loves ‘PGL’ and how great he thinks it is, so of course that really made my day. I visited with my friends Michael Salerno and Benedetta De Alessi, and that was nice. Worked on the gif book, which my weird concentration seems to be allowing, and I think I’m close to finishing it. More shit happening about the ongoing contract problems re: the mysterious project, which its maddening. Big meeting about what to do about that today. I think that was it for me. How was Thursday? Are you still twisted upstairs? ** Ferdinand, Hi. Oh, you found that news thing. Yeah, thanks for sharing it. Everyone, Just to say, because Ferdinand happened to come across the news, that Diarmuid Hester, excellent thinker and writer whom some of you know, is writing a ‘critical biography’ book about me for the University of Iowa Press that’ll come out in 2019. So I’m a lucky dog. Thanks again, F. ** Jamie, Sunny Day Real Estate, Jamie. Mm, not really a post-park come down, but definitely a bit of trouble getting back into concentrating on work. Heroes was the best because … well, the cars slide around and take you into ‘secret’ rooms and get you close to particular details depending your assigned theme, and Heroes had the best secrets and close-ups. Parc Asterix is different from Efteling, but it is similarly wonderfully themed, and, yes, it does have some really sweet dark ride attractions. It has one of my all-time favorite rides, a complicated, multi-part mostly walkthrough dark attraction called ‘Le Défi de César’. Here is a walkthrough video. The video is 14 minutes long and ultimately insufficient to capturing the experience, so I don’t know if you actually want to watch it, but it gives you the idea. I didn’t have much luck with my scripts, urgh, but I made progress on my new gif book. Fantastic that your script is really locked into you and sparkling at your touch and all of that best stuff! That’s great news! Ha ha, nice day wish, thank you. May your day drop acid with Arthur Rimbaud. Powerball Jackpot love, Dennis. ** JM, Hi. I haven’t seen ‘Baby Driver’. I know some people really liked it. Hm. Thanks a lot about ‘ZFE’s’ first chapter. Yes, I only use pre-exisiting gifs. That’s the rule. I have it in my head that if I made the gifs, it would be more like visual art, and it’s important to me that the gif work is literary, novels, stories. That the gifs pre-exist make it more like writing, i.e., using pre-existing things (gifs) in the same way that writing texts involves using pre-existing words and notions of sentences, phrases, paragraphs, etc. to me. Yes, I keep hoping other writers might try their hands at writing gif fiction. I would love to see what writers with completely different notions about writing and ideas, etc. would do with the medium. But so far it hasn’t happened. It is a tricky, tough form to work in. Thank you again so much! Hm, I … think I read Arno Schmidt’s ‘Evening Edged in Gold’ a long time ago, but I don’t remember a thing about it. Are you going to go ahead tackle him, gigantic time swallowing prospect notwithstanding? ** Cal Graves, Hi, Cal. Oh, well, Incredible String Band obviously. Nick Drake, Buffy St. Marie’s ‘Illuminations’ album, Donovan, Dr. Strangely Strange, pre-electric Tyrannosaurus Rex, Bert Jansch, … I can’t think of current stuff like that that I’m into, but I might be spacing. Grouper is sort of like that. I like her. Thank you about ‘Try’. ‘Psychopomp’ … I like it. Yeah, it works, and all those ‘p’s’ are weirdly pleasurable too. Glad you’re moving through your novel even slowly. Sometimes it’s slow, right? You can’t force it. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hey, B. ** Misanthrope, Good god, he is in a world of trouble. And talk about horrible timing, whoa. That sounds potentially pretty bad. Shit, I hope he doesn’t get the entire book thrown at him. Little dude needs to chill the fuck out, no? ** Nik, Hi, N. Really happy you liked the Amps post. I really like that kind of work too. Obviously, I guess. The gif work is at an interesting point. I would say it has kind of plateaued. I feel like I understand the medium really well now and that I can play within it more easily. I think the work has gotten more subtle and complex, and I’m really enjoying doing the work. I also think I understand the limitations of the medium pretty well, and that’s both good and problematic. With my written fiction, I’ve always been really suspicious when I think I grasp the possibilities of where I am and know what I’m doing in my development re: fiction. With my novels, I always try to reinvent my writing and my approach with each new novel. But with the gif fiction, that’s not really possible, or rather I feel like I’ve come close to maxing out what the ‘gif fiction’ form is capable of given my particular talent and interests. So I don’t think I’m going to be able to write another gif novel because I don’t think I can advance the form further along enough to do something new and different enough to make that project exciting. So I’m working with short forms now, and I’m really liking what I do, but I don’t where it’s all leading at the moment or whether I’m getting close to abandoning that particular work. A curious point. Thank you a lot for asking about that. It will be easier to talk about the opera once we get back to work on it because it’s still pretty young. There’s a big project that Gisele and Zac and I are working on right now, and we have to get that pretty far along before we can work on the opera again in the intensive way it needs. Well, the production of the Frisch play sounds extremely interesting., Did you document it, and is there is any wish or usefulness in making a document of it public? Obviously, I would love to what what it was. It’s very, very interesting to read you talking about it, and I’m very grateful for that. My week is mostly a lot of work I need to force myself to do that I’m not in the mood to do, but I will. What about your week ahead? ** Right. WM Spackman has to be way up there with the most under known and under-celebrated American brilliant prose stylists. There was a bit of a vogue around his work in the 80s, but it seems to have faded recently. A total writer’s writer. Amazing prose. Check out the book of his that I’m featuring today, if you will. Cool. See you tomorrow.