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The Very Picture of a Don : TOO SAD TO SING A Memoir With Postcards by Kenneth S. Brecher (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $18.95, cloth; $11.95, paper; 118 pp.)

June 26, 1988|John Espey | Espey is one-third of "Monica Highland," whose forthcoming book is a collection of post cards with text titled , "Greetings From Southern California."

Kenneth Steven Brecher has taken the title of his tantalizing memoirs from a post card sent by W. H. Auden in reply to a request from Robin Holloway asking the aging poet to consider writing the libretto for an opera based on Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts." Striking as the phrase is, it hardly does justice to the range of Brecher's experiences, recorded here in pictures and text. True, he reports a period when, after the deaths of the two most important women in his life, he found himself overcome by grief and without any sense of direction. Among other escapes, he haunted the cathedral at Chartres, gazing at the north rose window until it began to spin like a kaleidoscope for him.

But the greater part of this record is one of curiosity and personal response to travel and friends, all of which added to his collection of post cards. This had begun in his childhood in Chicago when his father was away from home and sent daily messages to his children. As Brecher reviewed them in later years, "they reminded me that I was the same person who had once taken Cecil Rhodes' money and gone off to Oxford; lived for two years with a tribe of Amazonian Indians . . . journeyed to Khartoum . . . climbed in the Himalayas of Ladekh, and mounted a camel expedition to the Sahara."

We get illuminating glimpses of his adventures in all these settings plus an astonishing knowledge of the variety of museums throughout the world. The recipient of a grant from the Getty Foundation to study the museums of Paris, he found not only the Museum of Bread, which houses "a piece of bread from every country in the world and an exhibit of naughty 19th-Century post cards whose subject is a baker's wife," but also the Museum of Luggage, which includes Marie Antoinette's overnight case. Special security clearance was needed to gain admittance to the Black Museum in New Scotland Yard, where two of Brecher's fellow visitors were made physically ill, presumably by such sights as "what was scraped off the pavement after the last terrorist bombing of Harrod's." It is only fitting that Brecher, known locally for his artistic work at the Mark Taper Forum, is now director of the Children's Museum in Boston.

In fewer than 120 pages illustrated by a little more than 60 post cards, Brecher has fashioned a wide-ranging and provocative record that is, as Oxford dons delight in saying, sui generis.

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