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Revealing Herself to Herself : REMEMBRANCES

June 16, 1996|Jerry Griswold | A portion of Jerry Griswold's interview with P. L. Travers appeared in the Paris Review (winter, 1982). Griswold teaches literature at San Diego State and UCSD; his "The One American Childhood Story" is due in paperback later this year

P. L. Travers died recently, at the age of 90. Perhaps it was wrong for me to think that she would always be here for us, for me. She was the wisest woman I ever met.

Travers wrote the "Mary Poppins" books. They are brilliant and profound works, but few people seem willing to overcome their prejudices and entertain that possibility. When I've pressed those books on friends, their eyes seem to fill with saccharine memories (of Disney's film and Julie Andrews and her umbrella) and they smile indulgently as if this is one more proof of my eccentricity.

I once asked Travers what she thought about the Disney film, and she replied obliquely: "When I left the theater, I was weeping." That was her conversational manner. She left it for you to consider whether they were tears of joy or (as I assumed) prompted by some other emotion. In any event, she later said, the book and the film occupy two different worlds.

I never had the audacity to call her by her given name of Pamela. She told me once how she abhorred the American custom of seizing on people's first names ("as if they were a right rather than something to be given"). This came up as she was discussing the "sacred and inward nature of the name"--something she had learned while living for several years with the Navajos, something she linked to the name-guessing in the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. She was always making those kinds of links. Throughout her life she took E. M. Forester's famous words as her mission statement: "Only connect."

And so she saw all of life, even current events, as reincarnations of ancient and timeless stories. She once wrote about Patty Hearst: "It seems to me that she has embodied the myth of Persephone: kidnapped from the sunny fields of rich living, taken into the underworld, eating its fruit, falling in love with her dark Symbionic lord, and all the time her mother searching the upper world for her."

We met when I was a graduate student and she was a visitor to the University of Connecticut. After dinner, I presumed to enlighten her with my bookish wisdom about yoga and Zen and mysticism. I was full of myself in a youthful way and she was silent and polite and curious. Later, to my chagrin, I learned how well-versed she was on these topics: how she did yoga daily, had studied for several years in Kyoto under a Zen master and had been an intimate of Gurdjieff and was a practicing teacher in that circle.

Nonetheless, and in a perhaps forgiving way, we hit it off. And I asked whether I might come to New York to interview her. She agreed and had only one suggestion: that I first read the work of "AE"--the Irish poet and mystic George Russell. Doing my homework, I was surprised to learn how as a young person she had been part of the "Celtic Twilight," good friends with Russell, William Butler Yeats and others.

The afternoon of our interview, sitting on the rattan furniture in her Manhattan apartment, I felt like a character in "Mary Poppins" when the children go to the zoo and listen to the wise snake, the Hamadryad. Irish by birth, Travers offered her wisdom in stories. When I asked about her writing habits, for example, she told me this anecdote:

I was a young woman traveling by train to Dublin when I realized I would be passing by the Isle of Innisfree, the place Yeats had written about in his famous poem. And I was seized by an idea. I got off the train in a rush and hired a boatman to take me across to the island. On the way, a great storm came up and I didn't know whether we would survive the crossing. But we reached the shore and I found a roan tree and broke off a huge bundle of branches. Then we made our way back again.

Soaked to the bone, I pulled this huge bundle of branches onto the railway carriage, much to the amazement of the other passengers. And when I got to Dublin, I rushed to Yeats' home. His housekeeper met me at the door. I'm afraid I was a sorry sight, dripping wet, clutching this huge gathering of branches. The housekeeper took the branches from me and ushered me into another room to dry off. By the time my clothes were dry, I had grown mortified by my behavior and was about to slink out when the housekeeper said, 'The master will see you now.'

Yeats was bubbling over with enthusiasm. His canary had just produced an egg and he was eager for me to see it. As we talked, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there was a vase on his desk with a tiny slip of roan from the huge bundle of branches I had brought. That's when I learned you can say more with less.\f7

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