Monday, January 14, 2008

Noel Coward on feline intercourse--and smoking

Having actually left the house tonight, I find myself with little time to write, so I'll just give you a snippet from a letter Noel Coward wrote to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne that I found in Daniel Mendelsohn's appreciative review of The Letters of Noel Coward (2007) in the January 17 issue of the New York Review of Books:
I have been having a terrible time with After the Ball, mainly on account of Mary Ellis's singing voice which, to coin a phrase, sounds like someone fucking the cat.
If I may be forgiven the pun, that's some first-rate cattiness. With deceptive ease, Coward sets his slagging apart from common lot by the simple replacement of "cats fucking," which we've all heard, with "someone" actively fucking the cat, which, thank god, we've not.

Thinking about Noel Coward reminds me of this passage from Enrique Vila-Matas's Montano's Malady (2002, published in an English translation by Jonathan Dunne in 2007):
To smoke in front of the mirror, as everyone knows, is an intelligent exercise. It is also to know how to confront our most ordinary, considered face.
It's hard for me to imagine Coward--one of the great smokers of the twentieth century, at least to the extent that photographs don't lie--not regularly taking pleasure from smoking in front of the mirror. I'm even willing to believe that he would have agreed with Vila-Matas's sentiments, however tongue-in-cheek, for you never get the sense that Coward is anything less than fully aware of the cigarette and its position in the overall composition of Coward-ness (or is it Coward-ice?). Try to picture him puffing away distractedly like your common mid-century American smoker, who, Luc Sante explains, "often smoked without being aware we were smoking"--you can't, can you?

No, it's always the cigarette (sometimes in a holder, sometimes between two fingers) that pulls the image together, leading the eye to the cool, bemused, oh-so-Coward expression--an expression that you can feel animating this later passage, also highlighted by Mendelsohn:
My philosophy is as simple as ever. I love smoking, drinking, moderate sexual intercourse on a diminishing scale, reading and writing (not arithmetic). I have a selfless absorption in the well-being and achievements of Noel Coward.
Since I don't smoke, I think I'll have to do the next-best thing and buy Coward's letters. After all, as a society we've more or less agreed that reflected glory is almost the same as real glory, right?

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