More than passable

Early geographers had a habit of studding their maps with representations of monsters supposed to exist in the regions they delineated, and my geographical memory works the same way. For elevenyears after D Day, the five-mile stretch of beach under the cliffs between Port-en-Bessin and Pointe du la Percee, on the Channel coast of Normandy, was marked in my mind by a line of American soldiers waist-deep in water and immobilized by fear. Descending arcs of tracers were entering the water around them, an LCT (Landing Craft, Tank) was burning nearby, and they could not bring themselves to move. They seemed as permanently fixed in time and space as those Marines in the statue of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, but the circumstances were different. While the men stood there, the LCIL 88, on which I was a deeply impressed observer, went in one their right and landed its passengers, and then pulled out. That image of the beach, for me, superseded pleasant earlier memories of the same strip of coast. Prior to 1944 I had visualized the water there as blue under a summer sun, as it had looked to me in 1926, when i strolled along the tops of the cliffs behind it. After 1944, I remembered it as gray, except for the lines of the tracers, and disquietingly narrow between the LCIL 88 and the beach.A.J. Liebling, “The Men in the Water,” Normandy Revisited

The Library of America has just issued a collection of A.J. Liebling’s World War II reportage, originally published in The Road Back to Paris and Mollie and Other War Pieces, and his 1958 followup Normandy Revisited, in which his return to France stirred memories of D-Day along with musings on the way those apocalyptic events were entering the collective memory — or not, as the case might be. It’s all terrific stuff.

Liebling’s standing among journalists as a writer’s writer is second only to that of Joseph Mitchell, and Liebling had a vastly wider range than Mitchell. Where Mitchell’s legacy can be contained within a single volume, Liebling’s body of work sprawls across several books and almost as many genres.

As Allen Barra once put it:

His methods, no matter how many people have claimed them as an influence, were too arbitrary, and his temperament too personal and idiosyncratic, to leave a pattern for greatness that others would follow. In truth, despite the frequent comparisons to his friend Joseph Mitchell, there really wasn’t anyone much like Liebling back in the ’40s and ’50s. Liebling was always much better than those who claimed to be influenced by him, including Wolfe, who finally gave up chasing Liebling’s ghost to pursue John O’Hara’s — not exactly a trade up. As Herbert Mitgang pointed out, reading Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” turned out to be better preparation for covering World War II than the apprenticeship served by some of his fellow war correspondents in the press boxes of professional football games.

If Liebling actually had a philosophy as a writer, it could probably be summed up in three brief tenets, which run through all his books. 1) Know your subject really well. 2) Don’t ever force the humor; always look for it and you will find it. And 3) Spar with the little guys, but put on the eight-ounce gloves when taking on the big shots. The last one was his main point.

Late in life, Liebling became an astringent and observant critic of the trade he had mastered and surpassed without ever quite leaving (“Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one,” remains his most famous line) and I first encountered Liebling through his 1961 book The Press. But whenever I see Liebling’s name, my first thought is a passage from “Acceptable,” the final essay in his book Between Meals. In it, Liebling reminisces about the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1920s, and the women he met there:

To one I owe a debt the size of a small Latin American republic’s in analysts’ fees saved and sorrows unsuffered during the next thirty-odd years. Her name was Angele. She said: “Tu n’es pas beau, mais t’es passable.” (“You’re not handsome, but you’re passable.”)

I do not remember the specific occasion on which Angele gave me the good word, but it came during a critical year. I am lucky that she never said, “T’eis merveilleux.” The last is a line a man should be old enough to evaluate.

My brain reeled under the munificence of her compliment. If she had said I was handsome I wouldn’t have believed her. If she had called me loathsome I wouldn’t have liked it. Passable was what I had hoped for. Passable is the best thing for a man to be.

To get the full measure of Liebling’s gratitude, you can look at a photo or, better still, read this description of him by novelist James Salter:

Physically, Liebling was not attractive, yet women liked him. Bald, overweight, and gluttonous was how he described himself. He ate and drank to excess. He was shy and given to long silences. He wore glasses. His feet were flat and it was painful for him to walk, especially in later life when he had gotten so large, a fellow writer said, it was impossible to walk beside him on the sidewalk. He also had gout. Despite this, women were often fond of him, even pretty women. As a friend of his explained, he made them feel intelligent. This was not a tactic, it was genuine.

I’m glad to have this first LoA collection but I hope there will be others joining it soon. The press criticism, the articles about boxing, the essays about food, the random acts of journalism — all deserve to be returned to the light of print. It’s only appropriate. Liebling was a man who appreciated a big dinner, and a single course of his work will never be enough.

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