Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Samsonite Agonistes

Anyone who has ever suffered from a bad back will know the feeling of despondency arising from an apparently fruitless encounter with an over-zealous physical therapist.

One evening last December, having kept an appointment earlier that afternoon with one such person, somewhat shrill in her cheerfulness, I left my office in downtown New Haven, brief-case in hand, and started walking home, rather more gingerly than usual.

Such were my feelings of discomfort and self-pity that, en route, I made a short detour to the nearest bar for a much-needed, regenerative cocktail.

It was cold, and a fully-fledged snow storm was forecast.

I had damaged my back some weeks earlier, when, toiling over a chapter in my next book, I reached across my desk for a copy of Marivaux’s play Jeu de l’amour et du hazard (1730), in which, describing the hand of his beloved Lisette as “rondelette et potelée”—the equivalent of “pottled,” a phrase to which my senior Yale colleague Claude Rawson kindly directed me, thinking perhaps that it might be consistent with attractive dimples—it seemed to me that in saying so, the character of Arlequin could easily have been describing the plump, delicately tapering fingers of a shepherdess in Boucher, or some other Rococo painter.


I awoke the following morning with a little mild discomfort in my lower back, but what began as barely discernible whisperings of disquiet got steadily louder through the morning. By lunchtime it was as if some discreet but determined goblin was poking skewers into the small of my back. During the afternoon skewers gave way to carving knives. My strides gradually shortened. So at dusk I duly presented myself to the estimable Dr. John Iannarone in urgent care, who took one look, sent me off for an M.R.I., and prescribed diazepam—bless him.

Mostly these things eventually take care of themselves, provided you make an effort to strengthen your tummy muscles, and indeed the idea was that my rendezvous with the physical therapist, set for three weeks hence, would further aid in my recovery. However, when eventually I met that person it was as though, in a mere five minutes of deft manipulation, she managed to send me straight back to square one. So it was while entertaining dark thoughts in respect of paramedical matters generally, that I sought to exploit in that convenient local bar the tranquilizing and anesthetic properties of a very large, very dry martini.

The snow started to fall.

That day was not ordinary, because for reasons that need not detain us I had decided to ferry home to my apartment a number of documents, including my passport, with which I intended to travel by and by, and in retrospect it might have been prudent to deliver these into safekeeping before permitting myself the luxury of a soothing cocktail. However, nothing interferes with clear thinking as effectively as a bad back. The bar was nearly empty, as were the neighboring streets, and as the snow storm gradually gathered strength, I became engrossed in an article about Dutch glove-wearing habits.

When in due course the time came for me to pay my bill and depart, I reached down for my bag. It was gone, stolen from right under my feet.

The manager wrung his hands, the New Haven Police Department took a report, and to my apartment I set off through the snow, trying not to think about all the telephone calls I needed to make about my missing passport, the lost U.S. visa, and other stolen documents.

To my astonishment, two days later my brief case was recovered with all its contents.

This miraculous turn of events, is perhaps best described in the same adoring terms in which I wrote to the manufacturer soon afterwards:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
575 West Street, Suite 110,
Mansfield, Mass. 02048

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

Last Thursday evening, in downtown New Haven, Conn., my discreet, slimline olive-green Samsonite attaché case, which has been my faithful companion since about 1986, was stolen from under my feet in a quiet public place by the cleverest thieves I have ever had the misfortune to be targeted by.

However, the Samsonite—and all its contents—have since been safely returned to me. Evidently prayers addressed to St. Odo of Cluny for the safe return of lost items are powerfully effective.

It seems that later that same evening, in the middle of the snow storm, evidently finding nothing inside that was attractive to them, the thieves threw my beloved Samsonite out of their car window, presumably traveling at or above the speed limit of 55 m.p.h. on a stretch of Interstate Highway 91 that runs between North Haven and Wallingford, Conn. It landed on the road, stayed shut, was by some miracle not flattened by another car or lorry, and was eventually buried under the snow.

On Friday morning, my trusty Samsonite was bumped into by a snow plow clearing the road, thoughtfully retrieved by Mr. Corelli, the driver, and his assistant, Mr. Bruno. It was later delivered into the hands of Officer Malley of the Wallingford Police Department, who immediately arranged a compassionate reunion.

The contents of my durable Samsonite were not merely undamaged, but dry as a bone. Moreover, incredible as it may seem, the stylish slim lines, sturdy frame, and hardwearing exterior of my beautiful Samsonite sustained not a scratch, not a dent, not a blemish throughout this entire episode.

Currently it is resting, and while understandably distressed by this experience—the rough treatment was particularly hurtful—my dependable Samsonite will, after a suitable period of recuperation, no doubt regain its customary vim and vigor. Its good looks, glossy coat, cold dry handle, and generally positive outlook seem to be unaffected.

In these dark days of in-built obsolescence, I suppose further comment is superfluous. However, I cannot fail to pay tribute to the exceptional quality, workmanship, and design of your product, which has, in its day, protected the entire manuscript of every book I have written, and much else of value to me besides, and will, I hope, continue to do so for many years to come.

Incidentally, it may be of some reassurance to know that the criminal classes are obviously not familiar with the House of Samsonite, because it seems almost certain that what they thought they were stealing was a vulgar laptop computer—due to the comparable shape and weight—and not an exquisitely crafted attaché case containing one’s personal accessories: including foreign passport, intimate letters, rubber gloves, spare lariat, Burke’s Peerage on CD-ROM, equity card, the working draft of a tasteful erotic novella, Red Sox season tickets, knitting needles, a commercial fork-drift driver’s license application, hip-flask, change of smalls, digestive biscuits, lipstick, powder compact, spare condoms, etc.

So, thank you.

Yours sincerely, etc.

I intended that impressionistic final paragraph to achieve maximum distribution through the Samsonite design and publicity departments, where I felt the episode might be especially appreciated, and might even possibly garner a complimentary new set of valises for some future holiday in Santa Fe, N.M., or Palm Springs, Calif.

The digestive biscuits I had in mind were naturally M’Vitie’s.

Soon afterwards, however, new information came to light. I wrote again:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
575 West Street, Suite 110,
Mansfield, Mass. 02048

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

Further to my letter of 16th inst., I find that my late grandfather’s senior Samsonite gave equally impressive service.

In 1948–49, Grandfather Trumble’s stately Samsonite appeared before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London in the famous case of the Commonwealth of Australia v. The Bank of New South Wales.

As junior counsel, it successfully opposed the Chifley government’s wicked plot to nationalize the Australian banks—a triumph of good sense and free enterprize over the dead hand of socialism and big government.

There was a moment of mid-life crisis in 1977, when my grandfather’s distinguished Samsonite was apprehended trying to break out of Stockholm International Airport, no doubt driven to distraction by the prospect of Scandinavian free love—hearty blondes, the sauna, naked frolicking in the snow, bunches of birch twigs, and all that (these things did happen, and one must make allowances).

But, on the whole, across depressingly fickle decades, I am assured that my grandfather’s Samsonite was a model of resilience, strength, discretion, and probity.

It is currently in comfortable retirement on my uncle’s extensive longhorn cattle ranch on the rich pampa of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, and only rarely grants interviews.

Happy New Year.

Yours sincerely, etc.

To some degree the ensuing silence seemed strangely provocative. Either Mr. Bottoli was away, or Samsonite’s attorneys were busily drafting a restraining order. I decided to turn to verses:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
575 West Street, Suite 110,
Mansfield, Mass. 02048

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more Samsonite.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
While summer’s bags lack strength and feel too light.
Sometime too hard the baggage-handlers throw,
And often is one’s Qantas tag ignor’d;
And even first and business classes know,
Your cheaper luggage may not be restor’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fail
Nor lose possession of that stylish line;
Nor shall Swiss Army nor Vuitton prevail,
When with eternal wear shall thou yet shine:
So long as men can breathe or eyes have sight,
So long lives this, and this is Samsonite.

Yours sincerely, etc.

At this stage I thought it best to discontinue the correspondence, but just as I was beginning to think that I would never receive word, I had a charming acknowledgment from Mr. Bottoli, who, it emerged, is based in London. In the meantime, however, I had drafted the following letters but, perhaps wisely, filed them. The Romantics offered some intriguing possibilities:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
4, Mondial Way,
Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 5AR.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats o’er vales and rocky heights,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of olive Samsonites;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Solidly reposing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of the bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Nicely arranged midst yellow plants.

The waves beside them sloshed; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in style:
A poet could not but be gay,
With such sophistication, while
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in fashion mode,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which comes from being on the road;
And then my heart with joy delights,
And dances with my Samsonites.

Yours sincerely, etc.

The Moderns proved fruitful also. Maud Gonne, eat your heart out:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
4, Mondial Way,
Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 5AR.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

That is no brief-case for old men. The wrong
Valise is never good, birds in the trees
—those dying generations—at their song,
The focus groups, the advertising sleaze,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all winter long
Whatever is forgotten, worn, Chinese.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

A discount bag is but a paltry thing,
A tattered lump upon a strap, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every brief-case in its stylish dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore have I flown, and now alight
In the famous, holy House of Samsonite.

Brief-cases there for shoppers to admire
Within the swish boutique of a mall;
Come manufacturer, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-master of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to an ageing curator
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the travel goods of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My personal stuff in any casual thing,
But choose your case, which thoughtful bag-smiths make
For Samsonite! With pretty detailing
And pockets for the busy person’s sake;
To set upon an office desk and bring
For lords and ladies each accessory
Of seasons past, or passing, or to be.

Yours sincerely, etc.

A colleague high in the echelons of Yale College, meanwhile, nudged me toward the metaphysicals:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
4, Mondial Way,
Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 5AR.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

I’ll tell thee Samsonite what thou shalt do
To anger destiny, as she doth us;
How I shall stay, though she torment me thus,
And how posterity shall know it too;
How thine may out-endure
Fashion’s glory, and obscure
They who from Shopping could allure,
And they, through whose help Retail is not lame,
And they who peddle products not the same.

Study our detailing, those periods
Of labor, which have passed ’twixt thee and me;
Thence write your annals, and in them will be
To all with your subliming travel goods,
Rule and example dressed;
There the faith that seeks the best
No schismatic will dare to test,
That sees, how Samsonite to me affords,
To make, to keep, to use, to be my House of Lords.

This case, as long-lived as the elements,
Or as the world’s form, this scarce-gravèd bag
In olive wrought, with tasteful luggage tag;
We for work’s purpose only are instruments;
When my grip is made thus,
Should again the ravenous
Vandals and thieves outrage us,
Learning were safe; in this our universe,
Yale might breathe easily, read papers, scribble verse.

Here Work’s divines—since all divinity
Is love or wonder—may find all they seek,
Whether abstract spiritual work they like,
Their plans derailed by what they do not see;
Or, loth so to amuse
Faith’s infirmity, they choose
Something which they may see and use;
For, though mind be the heaven, where work doth sit,
Beauty a convenient bag may be to structure it.

Here more than in their heads may workers find,
Both by what papers mistresses are ours,
And how prerogative that stuff devours,
Tranferr’d from Work himself, to humankind;
Who, though with heart and soul,
We endure great rigmarole
Pour memoranda in his hole;
And for the cause, honour, or conscience give;
Chimeras vain as him or his prerogative.

Here craftsmen—or of them, they which can read—
May of their occupation find the grounds;
Work, and their art, alike its daily rounds
End before bed-time, and their bag I feed.
In both you do excel
Whose attaché cases sell
Whose weakness none doth, nor can tell;

In this they bag, such will there something see,
As in a kitchen some may seek out cups of tea.

Thus prosper! Here and there I’ll study thee,
Your suitcases far off, that great heights take;
How great love is, airlines best trial make
But Heathrow tries how strong this love will be;
To take a latitude
Sun, or stars, are fitliest view’d
At their brightest, but to conclude
Of Samsonites, what better course or check,
Than to choose your brand, which no thief’s eclipse can wreck?

Yours sincerely, etc.

And, I suppose, it was inevitable that all this would eventually lead to Prufrock:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
4, Mondial Way,
Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 5AR.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a bag accessorized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain fashionable stores,
With many crowded floors
Of lovely nights in fabulous hotels
And choicest restaurants with oyster-shells:
Shops that rarely offer ten percent
Off insidious stock
To lead you to an overwhelming question…

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the store the women come up flights
Talking of olive Samsonites.

The gorgeous bags that rub their backs upon the window-panes,
The lovely cases rub their muzzle on the window-panes
Locked their clasps into the corners of the morning,
Lingered upon those racks the staff maintains,
Let fall upon their back the cellophane from stock-rooms,
Draped by the salesmen, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a cold December night,
Curled once about the store, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the lovely bags that sit in travel goods,
Rubbing their backs upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare next season’s line in sundry colors, moods;
There will be time to order and create,
And time for all the work and days of hands
That lift and drop a handbag on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the switch to elasticity.

In the store the women come up flights
Talking of olive Samsonites.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?”
Appliqué bags or adopt drawstrings,
With a neat strap in the middle through gold rings—
(They will say: “Now that case is fabulous!”)
With that suave coat, those gloves and loafers: brilliant, glamorous,
Your necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple knot—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are hot!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which the market will endorse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the seasons, showings, vernissages,
I have carried all my things in lovely bags;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall…

At this point I was simply unstoppable:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
4, Mondial Way,
Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 5AR.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

O Bag, thou wert sick!
That Invisible worm,
The thief in the night,
In the howling storm,

Abandoned my things
My Samsonite;
Yet his dark crime
Merely wrecked one night.

Yours sincerely, etc.

And the more I looked, the more I found inspiration in unlikely branches of the western canon:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
4, Mondial Way,
Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 5AR.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

That’s my old brief-case sitting in the hall,
Carrying everything I have. I call
That piece a wonder, now: From Samsonite,
Your people ran it up, so strong and light.
Will’t please you sit and look at it? I said
A Samsonite design, for never read
Strangers that soigné, lissome countenance,
The lines and fashionable hints of France,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The closet door you see ajar, but I)
And seemed they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a bag came there; so not the first
Are they to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘twas not
Your shape of elegance that called a spot
Of joy into my ageing cheek: perhaps
Your manufacturers decided “flaps
And fancy buckles will not do, or quaint
Attorneys’ leather models lack the faint
Half flush of olive fiberglass”: such stuff
Was fabulous, I thought, and cause enough
For calling up that blush. The rival brands,
So vulgar—how shall I say?—too soon change hands,
Their bags wear out; they like whate’er
The glossies hunger for, go everywhere.
Sir, ‘twas everyone my Samsonite impressed:
Discreet compartments let my papers nest,
E’en gifts of cherries some officious fool
Brought to the office for me, the slide rule,
Spare lariat, Burke’s Peerage—all and each
Will fit nicely inside; you see I teach
At Yale, sometimes. Though different bags are good
Somehow—I know not how—they never could
Out-rank that lovely hundred-years-old name
Of Samsonite. Who’d stoop to blame
That sort of trifling? Even had I skill
In luggage—(you have it)—to make my will
Quite clear to such a firm, and say “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss
Or fail to cut the mustard”—and if yet
They peddle lesser junk, nor plainly set
Their wits to decent bags, and made excuse
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, you smile, nonplussed:
You always use a Samsonite! Will’t please you rise? I’ll meet
Your company whenever. I repeat:
Department stores’ well-known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of my brief-case will they disallow;
In travel goods they carry what I vow
At starting was my object: “Samsonite!
Accept none other.” But, beware: the light
Fingers of dumb thieves itch for stylish modes,
But often later dump them on the roads.

Yours sincerely, etc.

I was also concerned lest my Scottish roots be ignored:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
4, Mondial Way,
Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 5AR.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

March, march, Hamden and Wallingford,
Why the deil dinna ye march forward yesterday!
March, march, Orange and New Haven,
Cops in Blue Bonnets are bound for the highway.
Many a banner spread,
Flutter’d above your head,
Flashing your badge on the street and in parking place.
Mounted, make ready then,
Sons of New England’s fen,
Look for the bag, my old Samsonite brief-case.

Come from the hills where your cop cars are grazing,
Come from the place of the snow-plow and shad;
Answer the 911 call I am raising,
Come with your hand-cuffs, mace, guns, and note-pad.
Robbers are scrounging,
Bag-ladies lounging,
Stand to your arms, then, and follow that thief tonight;
Victims of robbery,
Long will we treasure thee,
Wallingford’s finest, for saving my Samsonite.

Yours sincerely, etc.

Perhaps it was just as well that eventually I lost my head of steam, and concluded the enterprise on a high note:

Mr. Marcello Bottoli,
C.E.O. and President,
Samsonite Corporation,
4, Mondial Way,
Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 5AR.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Dear Mr. Bottoli,

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Papers and slow Work,
Sylvan attaché case, who canst thus compress
Accessories more sweetly than our rhyme:
What note-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of manuscripts or meetings, or of both,
In th’Office, and the Sterling Library?
What pens or notes are these? What diary loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What keys and check book? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye stout bag, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Brief-case, beneath the desk, thou canst not leave
My side, unless vile thieves contrive it so;
Bold Brief-case, never, never canst thou fail:
Thy sturdy frame, and stylish lines achieve
Perfection. Cheaper bags cannot prevail:
I spurn thee, Substitute, Lothario!

Ah, happy Samsonite! That will not yield
My things to robbers in outrageous climes;
And, carried in the city, or the field,
Forever faithful, borne then thousand times;
More happy firm! More happy, happy firm!
For ever mindful of such quality,
As ever kept a bag forever young;
All craftsmanship and passion, for a term
Of decades, not of years—thy guarantee!—
Competitors outstripp’d, outsold, unsung.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that tacky suitcase I despise,
And all her sagging flanks with vinyl drest?
What lesser product—but the price exceeds
All reason—a decrepit citadel
To Samsonite’s pavilion, sheer, Moderne?
Make haste! No rival olive case succeeds
In out-performing mine. I see, I tell
Why thou resolv’st that lesser bag to burn.

O wondrous shape! fair attitude! which bredes
Of clam’ring shoppers overwrought,
Pursue through branches, and the trodden weeds;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity our mind enthrall!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Samsonite bags are better bags,” is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Yours sincerely, etc.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year

Acknowledgment: I am grateful for their somewhat bemused indulgence to my colleagues Claude Rawson, Maynard Mack Professor of English; Professor Brian Allen, Director of Studies, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London; Professor Joseph Gordon, Dean of Undergraduate Education and Deputy Dean of Yale College; Fiona Gruber; Patrick McCaughey; my director, Dr. Amy Meyers, and Jack Meyers; Professor Linda Nochlin; Alice Prochaska, Yale University Librarian; MaryAnne Stevens, Education Secretary and Chief Curator of the Royal Academy of Arts in London; and Giles Waterfield.

No comments:

Post a Comment