Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jonathan Bayliss (1926-2009)

(Photograph by Mark Power)

I met Jonathan Bayliss 47 years ago this month. We were invited by Charles Olson to read at Gallery Seven in Magnolia, a contemporary art gallery that sponsored readings by poets and writers. On that unseasonably warm April night, I read first from a novel I’d been working on, set in Italy. John Keyes, a New York poet, then living in Gloucester, read from a long Olson-inspired poem about his hometown of Washington, D.C.

The final reader was a youngish, balding man of thirty-six, wearing a business suit. Olson introduced him as Jonathan Bayliss, a novelist and playwright, who worked as a market analyst at Gorton’s, having moved with his family to Gloucester in 1956. Jonathan had with him the thick manuscript of a novel-in-progress, set in Berkeley and San Francisco; and he proceeded to read from the beginning, titled appropriately “Prologos:”

Michael Chapman had not cherished any of his three sons before they were born nor had he hoped for them before they were conceived. Ruth Chapman the wife and mother agglomerated them licked them into shape and bred them up for his approval. Except when gripped by a universal pathos of babyhood he had been nearly careless of each undifferentiated babe in the cradle. But he found that humankind’s uniqueness entered his history as engagingly as any less casual father’s. In every case the gathering person of a child’s incorporated him against his will as if without warning.

At first I thought, “Well, this is quite old-fashioned,” but as Jonathan read on, I and the rest of the audience became spellbound:

In the years of growth as the new people in the family nourished their possibilities partly on the father’s protein his own possibility continuously diminished. One by one they joined their mother in pruning and oiling the plumage by means of which he personally might have fledged. It was not in themselves that they embarrassed him, not by virtue of existence or intention, but by the statistical fact of their economic connections. Their organic requirement prevented further exfoliation on the father’s part. At the age of thirty-three all he had left to himself was the inner man.

Not only was Jonathan’s prose stately and beautiful in its exquisitely formal cadences, it was humorous, and it was subtle. On the surface it seemed to reflect, even mimic, the prose of certain 18th century British novels—Sterne’s Tristram Shandy came immediately to mind—yet there was something quite modern about it, indeed Modernist, in the sentences’ paucity of punctuation, the irony inherent in their diction, the inflation of the domestic subject into myth. Jonathan continued:

Yet there was nothing unsure about his love for the three who loved each other and both parents. His love was crescent and irreversible, a moon that never waned and always grew, even when obscured by clouds of annoyance or despair—not like the moon of his love for the mother, which in the course of the years waxed only haltingly, with countless fluctuations, magnified chiefly by complexity of perception.

As he entered more deeply into his narrative, a sense of the form of this book in gestation, the trajectory of its narrative, began to take shape. The longer Jonathan read in a quiet, sometimes faintly audible voice, the more I realized that his was not an old-fashioned book at all. In fact, it was revolutionary. I could hardly contain my excitement.

After the reading that night at Gallery Seven, after Olson had introduced Jonathan and me; after Olson had been heard to exclaim that Bayliss’s novel might be one of the most important then being written in America; and after some of us had repaired to Olson’s house at 28 Fort Square for the first of many nights around that kitchen table, which Olson referred to as my “graduate school,” Jonathan and I initiated one of our countless talks that would spread over 47 years and be among the greatest delights of my life.

We felt an immediate affinity, Jonathan and I, not only because we were both engaged in the writing of novels, but because we discovered that we were attracted to many of the same writers—the great British novelists of the 18th century, and some of the more eccentric ones of the 19th and 20th centuries, George Gissing, Ford Madox Ford; not to speak of Europeans like Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, whose novels inspired both the reach and the structure of Jonathan’s. We also had William Butler Yeats in common, on whose plays, in particular, Jonathan had done graduate work at Berkeley. Then would come Melville, Jonathan’s deep study of whose novels and poems benefited me immeasurably in the years to follow.

That first night at Olson’s we agreed to meet and read to each other from our ongoing work. And we did so each Friday night in Jonathan’s study, secluded on the top floor of his house at 165 Washington Street, overlooking Oak Grove cemetery. In that book-lined room, redolent with the smell of his pipe tobacco, where Jonathan wrote at a heavy, dark-stained wooden table on an old manual typewriter, we took turns sharing with each other our latest chapters. As Jonathan expanded his narrative, I began to understand the complexity of its structure and of his own mind, which I could only marvel at. Ultimately, we came to realize that we were, or were going to become, quite different writers. Encouraged by Jonathan, I began to find my voice as a social realist, while Jonathan evolved into one of our great maximalists, his novel exfoliating from a bourgeois family story to the vast Pythagorean structure it became, as it expanded to include the systems of ritual and myth as they mirrored the systems of science, cybernetics and business. But I think we helped each other in those early years before our personal lives diverged. Certainly Jonathan helped me, not only through the education I received listening to his evolving novel, but through our talk about books, politics and philosophy.

Jonathan had—and Olson firmly believed this—one of the finest minds in America. Olson also claimed that Bayliss, as he always referred to him, was “the only person in the country who understands me,” while Jonathan, in his unerring candor, was one of the few who dared stand up to what he sometimes referred to in person and in the margins of Olson’s books as Charles’s “BS.” Compared to Olson’s monumental assaults on knowledge, Jonathan’s scholarship was patient and circumspect, though no less deep and thorough, as befitted the Harvard student, who followed his great teacher, the scholar, critic and biographer Mark Shorer, to Berkeley after the war.

As to Jonathan’s demeanor in those years, he was often quiet, reticent, even shy. Who could be otherwise around Olson and Vincent Ferrini, confronted with the drama of their personal lives, the agony and ecstasy of creation, the endless dialectics that sometimes exhausted the rest of us as we talked and drank far into those starry Gloucester nights?

Let me share one story: We were at Jonathan’s on a stormy early winter night, Vincent, Charles and I, sitting around the dining room table, as we often did, Doris and the children all in bed by then. There was talk of JFK and the recent Cuban Missile Crisis, of the direction of the Democratic Party, Charles having spent years in the thick of Washington politics. The subject turned to Joyce, not a favorite of Jonathan’s or Charles’, veering then to Jonathan’s novel. In a characteristic gesture, Charles stood up, gripped the table and said to Jonathan, “I’ll do whatever I can to see that your book gets published.” Embarrassed, as he often was by compliments, by any attention paid to him, Jonathan demurred in the face of Olson’s mounting enthusiasm. Offended, Olson stopped short in his praise. He slammed his glass down.

“Bayliss, I’m leaving your house,” he said, turning from the table to put on the huge overcoat, which Jonathan would later describe as “the mantle of [Olson’s] respectability.”

“No, Charles,” Vincent and I shouted. “Stay, stay! It’s only a misunderstanding.”
But Olson left in a huff, stomping out into the snow, as we watched his massive form disappear down Washington Street.

“I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings,” Jonathan said, after we resumed our places at the table. Vincent and I quickly jumped in to reassure him that he had done or said nothing wrong. We attempted to return to our conversation, but Olson’s absence created a void that we three could not fill. At once, Ferrini got up. “Let’s go to Charles’,” he suggested. So the three of us traipsed out into what had now become a blizzard. We slogged through the driving snow from Jonathan’s house, across the railroad tracks, down past Washington Square and Gould Court, past Joan of Arc and the Legion Hall, and onto Commercial Street. When we reached Fort Square, the plows had not yet come through and the snow was a couple of feet deep.

Up Olson’s flight of steps we charged, wind and snow lashing our faces. Ferrini knocked on the kitchen door and Charles, wrapped in a big blanket, answered. At first he scowled, and then, warmed by our attempt to succor him, he let us in. The heat from the gas-on-gas stove melted the snow from our coats. We hugged; Jonathan apologized for seeming to reject Charles’ generous offer; Charles forgave him. We sat down at the kitchen table, littered with Olson’s daily mail yet unread. A bottle appeared and the night continued as if there had been no interruption. And all through this, Olson’s wife Betty and their son Charles Peter slept soundly.

Jonathan has been characterized in his obituaries as being as committed as a writer and business executive as he was as a father. To this I can attest, having spent so many hours in his house on Washington Street with his family at impromptu dinners at which the famous “Spaghetti Bayliss” was featured, or on quiet evenings of unmoistened talk. Jonathan read to his three children, Cathie, Vicky and “Geeka,” as I knew them then. He took them to the movies and to concerts and plays. This man, who carried a shirt pocket full of used punch-cards on which to record the rush of his ideas, was ever accessible to his children.

Flaubert, the father of the modern novel, insisted that writers “Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you can be violent and original in your works.” Jonathan was the most gentle and self-effacing of men, polite, deferential, thoughtful and considerate of friends and family. He dressed and lived conservatively, frugally, almost invisibly: the complete bourgeois. He was a lifelong Democrat. He confessed to me that he’d once voted for Henry Wallace and immediately regretted it. He opposed the war in Vietnam, yet he continued to support Lyndon Johnson; and once, when I pressed Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man on him, he returned the book with a quiet, though dismissive, shake of his head—“He’s a Platonist,” Jonathan said, and that was the most devastating rejection anyone could receive from him.

And yet in the writing Jonathan soared. He grappled with complex ideas, he explored archaic and post-modern structures, and, like Joyce, he pushed the English language to its limits. The diction of his novels is not your demotic American. In Jonathan’s hands our native tongue becomes a richer medium, precise yet imaginative, playful yet knowing, “not by simplifying the complexity of English,” as his narrator in Gloucestertide explains, “but by fixing more dimensions of abstraction.” For Jonathan, the novel was still “our quintessential medium of experience.” In the end, the games of words and identities he posed, the structural puzzles, the myths and counter-myths, systems and meta-systems—indeed, the counter-factuality of reality, as he limned it—were only one level of the play of Jonathan’s remarkable intelligence, an intelligence that had for long been missing from most American fiction. The other level is the writing itself—for Jonathan was a writer above all else—often breathtaking in its lyricism. I will close with one such example from Gloucestertide, one of his evocative descriptions of the city that became his actual and spiritual home and the source of his work:

Between every two beaches here on our stone island, between harbors and coves, wherever the land stops the sea, those tawny anfractuous rocks are a jagged pathway of choices. At chaotic elevations, with footholds on irregular cusps at all angles, no step is predictable until your foot is in the air, no step is determined by habits of graceful continuity. From ledges and pinnacles, on whalebacks and whalejaws, you fling yourself across one crevasse to another in jerky motion, sideways and forward, sometimes switching back to descend a crag or traverse a tidal gorge, sometimes down to a tongue of popples, at the lower tides always keeping above the slippery seaweed. Each imbalance is corrected by the next…It feels as if you’re rapidly covering great distances. Your dazzling way is bleached by salt and sun. It’s impossible to stop and think. Yet all the while you are both spectator and center of attraction for surf below, clouds above, and boats in the offing.

(This eulogy was delivered on April 27, 2009, at a memorial service for Jonathan Bayliss, at St. John's Episcopal Church in Gloucester, Massachusetts.)


Pista Gyerek said...


This is such a moving tribute to your old friend, and I'm glad I was there Monday to hear you deliver it.

I only got to speak to you briefly at the house afterward, and my wife and I had to leave before I got the chance to follow up with you. It was a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for your kind words about my Bayliss analyses.

Steve Farrell
steve.farrell at verizon dot net

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