I am weak to distraction. Doesn’t much matter what I’m doing, if I stumble across an interesting bit of information, an intriguing casual comment, a footnote in a book, almost anything that catches my eye and my imagination, I’m lost. I’ll stop what I’m doing and leap down that rabbit hole.
This morning on Twitter I came across a quote by novelist Henry Green, explaining the inspiration for his 1945 novel Loving. This is what he said:
I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: ‘Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.’ I saw the book in a flash.
It’s a great anecdote and an absolutely terrific line by the butler. So…there’s my rabbit hole. I tracked down the quotation. It was an interview conducted by novelist Terry Southern for The Paris Review (TPR) in 1958. Southern was also smitten with the butler’s line and used it to tweak the nose of the TPR’s editor. He wrote, “[Y]ou realize of course that the word ‘cunty’ makes the reply, gives it bite, insight, etc. I mean to say it simply would not do to rephrase it.”
Why was Southern pointing this out? Because five years earlier, TPR’s debut issue had included one of Southern’s short stories in which the term shit had been edited out. Instead of one character telling another “Don’t get your shit hot” TPR printed “Don’t get hot.” That’s a much weaker line.
Southern felt so strongly about the editing that he demanded TPR issue a correction in the following issue. And hey, they did. Sort of. Here’s their disappointing correction:
Terry Southern is most anxious that The Paris Review point out the absence of two words from his story The Accident (issue one): the sentence “don’t get hot” should have read “don’t get your crap hot,” an omission for which we apologize to all concerned.
The non-correction correction infuriated Southern, of course. So he was delighted (and absolutely correct) to force TPR to include cunty in the interview.
This made me happy for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is the butler’s line itself, which is simple but poetic. Second, because every writer likes to see an editor put in their place (even though editors are almost always right, damn it). Third, because I had a similar experience years ago.
I’d written a short story called Maybe the Horse Will Learn to Sing, which was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The story included this line:
So in trying to tweak Sweeney’s nose all I’d managed to do was to step on my own dick. There’s a lesson there, I suspect.
AHMM wanted to change that line to read, step on my own foot or something equally awful. Since I wanted to get paid, I agreed to change the line to some other weak analogy (I can’t recall what the final version was). The following year, however, that story was included in the 1999 anthology The Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Ed McBain and Otto Penzler. When I was asked permission to reprint the story, I agreed on the condition that they change the line back to the original. Penzler laughed and agreed it was a better line. That laugh was worth as much to me as the check.
So, that was today’s totally pointless but (for me) entertaining rabbit hole. That was probably 90 minutes out of my morning, including writing this pointless but (again, for me) entertaining blog post.