221b: Sandwich, Death, Fitzgerald, Sitzfleisch, Genius
Robert Caro is a master biographer. After writing The Power Broker, he started a series to capture the life and power of Lyndon B. Johnson. Though he started shortly after Johnson’s death in 1973, Caro is currently writing his fifth (and final) volume of the series. He’s won numerous literary awards and is a master of his craft.
When looking for an editor for his first book, The Power Broker, his agent set him up with four different meetings. “Three of the editors took me to the Four Seasons or some other fancy restaurant, and basically said they could make me a star,” Caro writes. “Bob Gottlieb at Knopf said, ‘Well, I don’t go out for lunch, but we can have a sandwich at my desk and talk about your book.’” That made the choice easy for Caro, “So of course I picked him.”
I love the simplicity of that. It was a good choice, too, for Caro and Gottlieb are still working together. A documentary came out recently covering their relationship that looks fascinating, but I can’t find a way to watch it.
The realization that death was around the corner for many Londoners during the Blitz is something I can’t wrap my head around, no matter how hard I try to imagine what life was like then. Erik Larson puts it well in The Splendid and the Vile: “The raids generated a paradox: The odds that any one person would die on any one night were slim, but the odds that someone, somewhere in London would die were 100 percent. Safety was a product of luck alone. One young boy, asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, a fireman or pilot or such, answered: ‘Alive.’”
The fact that death could be seconds away caused many people to feel strange things. One diarist, after being missed by a bomb while in her home, wrote, “I lay there feeling indescribably happy and triumphant. ‘I’ve been bombed!’, I kept saying to myself, over and over again–trying the phrase on, like a new dress, to see how it fitted. ‘I’ve been bombed!’…’I’ve been bombed–me!’ Never in my whole life have I ever experienced such pure and flawless happiness.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald kept a notebook of aphorisms, funny things he overheard in conversations, and other “wisecracks” in a journal. Parts of the journal were published in The Crack-Up and are delightful to read. Here are a few of the best ones:
- “I’m giving a dinner tonight, some very fine and cultivated people. I want you to come. I sent a note to your cabin.” “For God’s sake,” Lew groaned, “I don’t want to meet any people. I know some people.”
- “We can’t just let our worlds crash around us like dropped trays.”
- “I like writers. If you speak to a writer, you often get an answer.”
- You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you’ve got something to say.
- Genius is the ability to put into effect what is in your mind. There’s no other definition to it.
Fitzgerald: “The rich are different from us.”
Hemingway: “Yes, they have more money.”
You can read my notes on The Crack-Up here.
I learned a new German word this week: sitzfleisch.
Literally, it means “sitting meat” or “sitting flesh,” but it describes "the ability to sit still for the long periods of time required to be truly productive."
It describes the patience and staying power one must have to do great work. It’s sort of a mash-up of endurance, perseverance, and focus. It’s not enough to just sit and work for long periods of time, can you sit and work for long periods of time on the stuff that truly matters? That’s sitzfleisch.
A quote on my mind
Coming back to Fitzgerald…
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
Until next time.d s m