Love by the Book
SOMETIMES WHEN you read a novel, it speaks to you so deeply you want to meet the author.
Sometimes you even do.
But it's very, very rare to end up marrying her.
That, however, is what happened to Willie Gordon three years ago. A San Francisco lawyer who represents poor, non-English-speaking Mexicans, Gordon was given a copy of Isabel Allende's Of Love and Shadows for his 50th birthday. He loved it. "She was expressing, in a three-dimensional way, complete emotions," he says now. "I was curious to know if the author herself had that capability."
The friend who gave Gordon the book was a professor at San Jose State. Providentially, Allende -- still riding the immense wave of attention generated by The House of the Spirits (1985), a first novel that immediately established her as Latin America's most prominent woman writer -- was coming there soon for a speaking engagement. A dinner was arranged.
As Allende, now 48, tells the story:
"I had been in Europe, in Iceland, in Puerto Rico and then I ended up at this dinner in San Jose. Everyone was talking about literature and he was quiet, just sitting there at the end. I asked him: 'We haven't heard anything from you. Why don't you tell us your life?' And so he did. He still is doing it."
They had lunch the next day, but Allende then had to finish her tour. Afterwards she went to Spain, and then home to Caracas. Her son Nicolas greeted her at the door.
"Mother, you look really strange, what's wrong?" he asked.
"I've been traveling a lot," said Allende. "I'm tired, I need to wash my hair, wash my legs."
"No," Nicolas said. "It's something more."
It was then, Allende says, "that I had to admit I'd fallen madly in love with a guy whose last name I didn't remember. I only had a telephone number. So Nicolas said, 'Why don't you go and spend a few days with him and take him out of your system?' That's what I did. I washed my hair, packed a small suitcase, and came. And then I never returned."
All of this explains why Allende was sitting in the living room of a friend's house in San Francisco last month. Without love, she'd be in her Chilean homeland, or perhaps Spain, places where she'd be immersed in her native language. As it is, she still writes in Spanish, and much of the time she speaks what she calls "Spanglish" with Gordon.
"There are things we talk in English always, and things we talk in Spanish always. I feel awkward talking about love in English, so all the love part is in Spanish. It's not a better language; it's just that we have a culture, a tradition, of love-talking.
"What is the Latin lover? A guy or sometimes a woman who can talk about love. He doesn't know anything about foreplay, he's usually a lousy lover, but he can talk about it. We have this tradition of ballads, of love poems, of tangos, of boleros, so we have a vocabulary for it that doesn't sound so corny in Spanish, so sentimental."
It's not hard to conclude that Allende's new book, The Stories of Eva Luna (reviewed on page 3), grew directly out of her experience of falling in love. For one thing, the stories are variations on the themes of passion and intimacy, devotion and adulation; for another, she didn't have the uninterrupted time a novel requires because she was so busy being in love; and finally, many of the tales were told to her by her husband. "Most of my stories are taken from real life, from newspapers, from stories that people tell, from friend's lives," the writer says. "I am a hunter of stories."
Merely living in suburban San Rafael with an American husband -- and once again being mother to a teenager, after already being a grandmother from her first marriage -- will change her fiction even more. "Every time that I have needed to adapt myself to a totally new situation, the challenge brings out strength I didn't know I had," she says. "You look at the world with new eyes. You don't understand what's going on, you have an innocent eye for the world, for what happens around you. That confusion, that feeling you are floating -- I think it's very good for a writer, or any artist."
Gordon's version of their meeting, it should be noted, differs slightly in regard to some of the details -- how many people were at the table the first night, and so on. As Allende puts it: "He has one version, and it's the wrong one. I have twenty, and they're all true." Both acknowledge that they weren't looking for love. He had been divorced for six years, with a son and a stepson living at home; she had been divorced from her husband of 29 years for only a month.
Forever love? "I see myself living here until tomorrow," says Allende. "I live one day at a time. Every time that I have made plans in my life, they haven't worked. So I live a day at a time. If I had to think about the future, there are two things I would like to have forever -- the writing, and love. Nothing else."Words to Spy By THE INTERNATIONAL Dictionary of Intelligence seems a bit of a secret document in itself. On the spine of the glossy blue paperback it says "Maven Books," but this name is not mentioned again anywhere in the book itself. The holder of the copyright is identified as a McLean outfit called "International Defense Consultant Services," which sounds right out of Robert Ludlum. Neither that organization nor Maven is listed in the phone book. For that matter, there's no price on the dictionary. Nor is it available in area stores.
You've got to go to Leo D. Carl for the solution to these matters. Luckily, that's easy. He's in the McLean phone book, and is only too happy to answer questions. "It wasn't intentionally mysterious," he says, adding that "the Soviet embassy and the CIA had no trouble finding me." Both came to his home to buy copies.
Maven Books is Carl, and was left off the title page because of a printer's mistake. International Defense Consultant Services is Carl too, but is "currently inactive." At 72, he says, "to knock myself out with the book is enough."
And who is Carl? He's spent enough time knocking around the intelligence community to have learned about many of the words in his book firsthand. From '52 to '56 he was in the CIA, specializing in Soviet intelligence; from '56 to '59 he switched to the Air Intelligence Service in Germany; from '60 to '63 his beat was technical intelligence for the Air Force Systems Command. Subsequently, he spent time in the Air Force Office of the Inspector General and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Finally, he went in to private practice as a consultant.
Carl first tried to do the dictionary in 1985. Several publishers were interested, but they saw a limited market and were worried about competing, and more commercial, versions. The International Dictionary, on the other hand, isn't afraid to get technical, from the designations of specific reconnaissance satellites to six pages on "projects" ranging from Bald Eagle to Wringer. There is also material that will seem immediately familiar to readers of spy novels, from "Blue Birds" (the nickname for CIA buses used to transport employees between the headquarters in Langley and various northern Virginia installations) to "funny name" (a pseudonym).
Eventually, Carl decided to do it himself, spending $27,000 for 3,000 copies. The deciding vote was cast by his wife, Tommie. "I told him I would be totally supportive of the publication and would do anything I could to help him, and I did," she says.
Every writer should hope for so encouraging a spouse. Of course, there's usually a tiny bit of quid pro quo involved. "It's my turn this year," Tommie says. "I'm a composer, and I hope he'll be supporting me in getting my music published." In the Margin RICHARD GROSSMAN'S The Animals is an impressive performance wrapped up in Graywolf's usual attractive package. No small canvas for this poet: 500 pages long, his collection speaks in the voices of more than 200 creatures, interspersed with commentary from a sort of chorus. The individual works are short, and uneven in quality, but Grossman succeeds in capturing the spirit of the animal more often than not. "Deep in my body, there are little bones/ that used to be feet. They resonate/ whenever I come in sight of land," begins "Whale." Or "Leopard": "Jeremiah said we cannot change./ I would like to get my jaws around Jeremiah,/ and then we would see who can change faster" . . .
Illustrator Barry Moser is so prolific, he could form his own book-of-the-month club. His two most recent offerings: a tiny edition, the size of a mass-market paperback, of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (University of Nebraska Press) that features a dozen wood engravings, and a new bilingual translation and interpretation of The Song of Songs (HarperSanFrancisco), which has seven engravings. Moser has his detractors, who say that he works too fast or that his attempts at topicality will wear thin (that the Wicked Witch in his Wizard of Oz has the features of Nancy Reagan may soon begin to mystify young readers), but in these two efforts the results are fine . . .
Back in simpler days, there was only one book of quotations: Bartlett's, of course. Now every season brings a fresh crop. The reasons for this abundance include the culture's increasing fondness for the sound bite, the ease of researching through databanks, and the fact that no one cares anymore about such scholarly attributes as citing sources or including an index. It's now possible, in fact, to fashion a minor career out of books of quotations, which is what Jon Winokur is doing. His subjects have included Curmudgeons, Zen, Love and Friendly Advice, a Dutton hardcover. One example of the latter, by Rita Rudner: "Never play peek-a-boo with a child on a long plane trip. There's no end to the game. Finally I grabbed him by the bib and said, 'Look, it's always gonna be me!' "