Previously: A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Peter Beagle is one of my absolutely favorite writers, so I was fairly surprised last year when I realized I’d never even heard of his first novel, A Fine and Private Place (which he wrote when he was nineteen. What were you doing when you were nineteen? I remember what I was doing, and it wasn’t writing beautiful novels). The title comes from Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress: “The grave’s a fine and private place/But none, I think, do there embrace,” which for some reason I have always thought was written by John Donne. It’s about two ghosts who fall in love. Ghosts who fall in love! Could a book have been more perfectly tailored to suit my interests than that?
You are familiar, of course, with Beagle’s most famous and enduring novel, The Last Unicorn, which has produced a graphic novel adaptation (which I own), a Mia-Farrow-voiced cartoon featuring a soundtrack by the band America (which I also own), and at least one sequel (which I have not been able to bring myself to read. Do I dare? If you have read it, tell me what I should do). He also, apparently, wrote the screenplay to the animated Ralph Bakshi version of The Lord of the Rings (!) and the script for “Sarek,” one of the best episodes of Star Trek: TNG.
“Speaking of livers,” the unicorn said. “Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know that.”
A few grands of sand rustled down Mommy Fortuna’s cheek as she stared at the unicorn. All witches weep like that. She turned and walked swiftly toward her wagon, but suddenly she turned again and grinned her rubbly grin. “But I tricked you twice, anyway,” she said.
No one is better at coming up with arbitrary, perfect magical rules than Peter Beagle. “Deer love and envy unicorns.” Of course they do. Somehow I always knew that, but it took your saying so to make me know I knew it.
“You must never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention.”
“The Red Bull never fights. He conquers, but he never fights.” It is an absolutely splendid book and it deserves every ounce of acclaim it’s accrued over the years. But you have almost certainly read it several times since you were a wee child, and you are itching for more. For you, I offer A Fine and Private Place.
I cannot think of a modern sci-fi/fantasy novelist with a more Yiddish sensibility than Peter Beagle (Yes, I see you, Michael Chabon. Sit down.) Maybe Isidore Haiblum, but he wasn’t exactly writing for a general audience. Shmendrick the magician is the mopiest, wanderingest of Jews in The Last Unicorn, but he cannot compare with Mrs. Morris Klapper for even a second. Mrs. Klapper is a regular Yiddishe Momme of the first order:
“Any day.” Lapin’s voice sounded a little petulant. She beckoned Mrs. Klapper close with a long-nailed forefinger. “But I’m ready, believe me. When I die the House of Sages will say Kaddish, regular like Rosh Hashonah.”
Mrs. Klapper knew what question was expected of her. “So what about your nephew? Better the family should say Kaddish.”
Lapin’s mouth twisted, and she wrinkled her nose. “Kaddish they don’t believe in, my nephews. For their children they wouldn’t say it.” Her face relaxed again. “For me the House of Sages will say Kaddish.”
Mrs. Klapper is a wonder of a woman. Beagle praises her in the preface: “Michael Morgan was my idea of what being all of thirty-four and unhappily but interestingly married would be like; Laura Durand is me then; and Mrs. Gertrude Klapper, thank God, is herself. I’m very proud of Mrs. Klapper, even now.”
Beagle’s Yiddish worldview comes through in more than just Kaddish and corned beef references, of course. He has a knack for creating melancholy, complex worlds that are full of magic but without redemption, ghosts but no gods, love but no heaven. Mr. Rebeck, a failed pharmacist who secretly lives in the Westchester cemetery, survives on food that a talking raven brings him every day (usually baloney; roast beef when he can get it) just like Elijah in 1 Kings. But Rebeck’s raven isn’t sent from God; bringing food to lonely men is just what ravens do.
“Do you mind,” he said hesitantly, “bringing me food? I mean, is it inconvenient?” He felt silly asking, but he did want to know.”
The raven stared at him out of eyes like frozen gold. “Once a year,” he said hoarsely. “Once a year you get worried. You start wondering how come the airborne Gristede’s. You ask yourself, What’s he getting out of it? You say, ‘Nothing for nothing. Nobody does anybody any favors.'”
“That isn’t so,” Mr. Rebeck said. “That isn’t so at all…”
“Of course it’s a trouble. Of course it’s inconvenient. You’re damn right it’s out of my way. Feel better? Any other questions?”
“Yes, ” said Mr. Rebeck. “Why do you do it, then?”
The raven made a dive at a hurrying caterpillar and missed. He spoke slowly, without looking at Mr. Rebeck. “There are people,” he said, “who give, and there are people who take. There are people who create, people who destroy, and people who don’t do anything and drive the other two kinds crazy. It’s born in you, whether you give or take, and that’s the way you are. Ravens bring thing to people. We’re like that. It’s our nature. We don’t like it. We’d much rather be eagles, or swans, or even one of those moronic robins, but we’re ravens and there you are. Ravens don’t feel right without somebody to bring things to, and when we do find somebody we realize what a silly business it was in the first place.” He made a sound between a chuckle and a cough.
Only Peter Beagle would throw a little detail like ravens not having any respect for the intelligence of robins in the middle of a monologue like that.
“You’re alive,” the raven said. “You hide behind gravestones, but it follows you. You ran away from it nineteen years, and it follows you like a skip-tracer.” He cackled softly. “Life must love you very much.”
“I don’t want to be loved,” Mr. Rebeck cried. “It’s a burden on me.”
“Well that’s your affair,” the raven said. “I got my own problems.”
That’s very much the kind of book this is, by the way: conversations between two or three characters (of probably a grand total of eight) about life and love and death and meaning. This may be a format you’re not wild about, so if your favorite parts of The Last Unicorn involved traveling and adventuring, this may not be the Beagle follow-up for you. I’m a bit surprised this hasn’t been adapted into a play, frankly; it seems designed for a brief Off-Broadway run.
So: in this world, when people die, they become ghosts for a little while. Maybe a month, maybe longer, maybe not so long. It’s temporary. You can’t stray too far from wherever your mortal remains end up, and you slowly lose all form and memory of your human life as you return to nothingness (CHEERFUL). Enter Michael Morgan, recently deceased (either by suicide or murder; he can’t quite recall) and Laura Durand (hit by a truck). They fall in love, among other things, all the while knowing that sooner or later they will both forget each other, themselves, and what love is altogether.
“Nothing’s worth any effort in the end,” he said to Laura, “because everyone is going to die and there is nothing in the world that will stop them from dying. Nothing lasts. A few things last longer than most people live, but they go too. Hope goes, and desire and wonder and fear and eagerness. Love lasts a few minutes longer, that’s all. A minute or a month or an hour. The paper match burns down until it singes your fingers and goes out, and there you are in the dark again, rubbing your two little sticks together. But this is the last time, the last match. There won’t be any more light. No more. And no more noise of things moving or animals lying down. Only our separate, untouching selves, and soon not even that.”
“Then we’ll sit in the dark,” Laura said. “We’ll sit and wait.”
“Wait for what? Nothing’s coming. For God’s sake, we spend our whole lives waiting, you and I. Why should anything come to us now that did not come then? There’s just this, just this miserable little sketch of love to keep us from being immortal a while longer.”
Oh, my heart. Perhaps do not put this on your to-read list if you have very recently loved and lost. Give yourself a little break, re-watch Love & Basketball, then take a crack at it.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.