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A Novel

Written by Peter PounceyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Peter Pouncey



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List Price: $9.99

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43172-1
Published by : Random House Random House Group

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Read by Simon Vance
On Sale: April 12, 2005
ISBN: 978-0-7393-2109-6
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Tags for this book (powered by Library Thing)
fiction (38) war (11) aging (9) novel (5) marriage (5) academia (4) wwi (4)
fiction (38) war (11) aging (9) novel (5) marriage (5) academia (4) wwi (4)
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A brief, lyrical novel with a powerful emotional charge, Rules for Old Men Waiting is about three wars of the twentieth century and an ever-deepening marriage. In a house on the Cape “older than the Republic,” Robert MacIver, a historian who long ago played rugby for Scotland, creates a list of rules by which to live out his last days. The most important rule, to “tell a story to its end,” spurs the old Scot on to invent a strange and gripping tale of men in the trenches of the First World War.

Drawn from a depth of knowledge and imagination, MacIver conjures the implacable, clear-sighted artist Private Callum; the private’s nemesis Sergeant Braddis, with his pincerlike nails; Lieutenant Simon Dodds, who takes on Braddis; and Private Charlie Alston, who is ensnared in this story of inhumanity and betrayal but brings it to a close.

This invented tale of the Great War prompts MacIver’s own memories of his role in World War II and of Vietnam, where his son, David served. Both the stories and the memories alike are lit by the vivid presence of Margaret, his wife. As Hearts and Minds director Peter Davis writes, “Pouncey has wrought an almost inconceivable amount of beauty from pain, loss, and war, and I think he has been able to do this because every page is imbued with the love story at the heart of his astonishing novel.”


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Rules to Stop the Rot

The house and the old man were well matched, both large framed and failing fast. The house had a better excuse, MacIver thought; he was eighty, but the house was older than the Republic, had been a century old when Thoreau walked the Cape, though he couldn’t have seen it tucked away in the nondescript maze of scrub oak. It had been the willful seclusion of the place that had appealed to them when they first saw it—that and the equally hidden pool, about two minutes away through their woods, which must have decided the builder to choose the site. The oaks grew more substantial as they approached the pond, but the casual visitor would not have registered their rising height as the ground fell away down to the water. But when the path did its last little jink through the thicket of spare mossy trunks and last year’s leaves, you stood on the edge of something suddenly spacious. A stretch of almost two hundred yards of water, more than fifty wide, a glade of water, fringed at both ends by sedge and reeds, shaded along the sides by the larger oaks. Bird-loud by day, redwings and warblers in and out of the reeds and busy water-traffic of ducks, and even, for a few seasons, the stately progressions of a pair of swans; owls with their fluttery hoots at night, and very often at the far end beyond a fallen log, the hunched figure of a black-crowned night heron, the grim presiding judge executing sentence on a surprising number of small fish and frogs.

Margaret and he had watched the pond over the years at every hour in every season. In summer, it was their swimming pool, where they swam naked at any time of day. Often on hot August nights, they would have a last dip before bed. They would take one towel between them, and no flashlight, because the night sky overhead was bright enough to light their way down the faint, twisting path. MacIver, an energetic but clumsy swimmer, would thrash the water into turbulence out into the deep and then make for shore, and try to use the towel as little as possible, to leave it dry for Margaret. She would go on a while longer, parting the water gently in her rhythmic breast-stroke, the moonlight playing on her wet hair with each forward surge, a sleek and quiet otter. He would lose her in the shadowed background at the far end, and peer with great concentration into the dark, to catch the first ripple of her return. When she finally waded towards the bank where he was standing, he would stay motionless trying to register the first moment when he could see into her silhouette, and detect the dark roundness of her nipples and the triangle of her pubic hair. Then she would let him dry her off, and they would go home to bed.

In other seasons, dressed for the weather, they would take their station under one of the oaks, his back to the trunk, with Margaret sitting between his legs, and simply let the life of the pool evolve around them. They had seen families of deer come down to drink, they had seen a raccoon balance on a log and try to fish with his paw, and one evening in the last of the light, they had seen a great horned owl sail out from the tree above them and swoop on a small rabbit on the other side of the pond. They had heard the short squeal, and seen the inert furry bundle dangling from the bird’s talons as he passed over them on his return. Many foxes, and once he would have sworn a bobcat, though it can’t have been, padding along the far bank and back into the trees. You never knew what you would see. MacIver named the pond the Blind Pool, from a favorite boyhood story, though it was called Frog Pond on his geodetic map, and Margaret had called the house Night Heron House in honor of the constant sentinel standing by his fallen branch; she did a fine woodcut of him, too, which still hung inside the front door.

It was a traditional Cape house, but on a larger scale than was usual, a bold architect’s airy enlargement. The front rooms were high ceilinged and framed with more massive beams, and instead of the usual chicken-run stairs inside the front door, there was a handsome Y-shaped staircase down a wide hall, breaking at a little landing halfway up and then splitting to left and right for the upper rooms. A Victorian owner had widened the two front windows and bowed them, letting in more light, and then had built a porch between the two bows, with central steps up to the front door and a simple railing on either side. The house stood by itself in a clearing, which you had to maintain vigilantly: half a summer, and the locust, oak, and birch sprigs would be crowding onto the grass. Original glass in many panes; the shapes of things outside alternately clouded and cleared as your eyes moved across the windows. Original two-foot-wide floorboards and paneling on the walls, flouting an ancient Massachusetts statute reserving such width for the absent king. A cool, self-possessed house of mellow resonance, as if you were living inside a spacious cello. Nothing too decorative.

They had three and a half decades to set their rhythms, coming and going to their secret fastness, the Night Heron House with its woods and pond. When Margaret fell ill and the doctors said they could do no more for her, they had moved to the Cape, as they had always planned in such a case, “year-round”; in fact, she had three seasons left, fall to spring, 1986–1987. At first the house had seemed to banish sickness. They had moved their bed into the living room, so she would not have to manage the stairs, but in the large, airy space she bustled light-footed as ever; she set up her easel, and started a series of tree-scapes framed by the windows at different times of the day. The trees on the canvas got barer, MacIver noticed, as the season turned, but the paintings got lighter, at first because the angle of focus was raised to allow more cloud and sky, and at the end, in the unfinished ones, because the marks on the prepared white canvas, while precisely made, were fainter, less assertive: the effect left on her only viewer was of being pulled in her art past the blank of whiteness to the vanishing point of thin air.

As winter approached, they would still visit the pond on good days, though they didn’t stay long to absorb its more furtive movement; they would come out at the end of the path and stand a few moments looking, an old couple supporting each other in a lover’s stance, heads inclined towards each other, his rangy arm around her frail shoulders, her mittened hand around his waist. Then they would work their way back; she only needed a sighting, it seemed. Things were moving faster for them now, forcing changes they could not plan. In no time the number of hours she could be up each day, the number of feet she could walk, were shortening on them. By the end of February, she was confined to bed, daily falling further away from him deeper into sickness. He was ill himself, he knew, but nothing to this. First weekly, then twice a week, he would make grim sallies to the drugstore for the morphine prescribed from New York, and come back as fast as he dared, fearful of finding another visible weakening. There was no talk of going somewhere else for final care. It would end here, in this room. He would read to her, coax her to eat a little, play Mozart to her, spin new tales she would like about his boyhood on Loch Affric, and games and battles farther afield. When she drowsed, he would stay sitting on in the bentwood rocker through the fading afternoon. She would wake up and read his unguarded face; she could see her fierce old Scot being gentled out of character by his own secret illness, never to be mentioned, and by grief.

It was all grotesquely new to him; he was not a man who had ever willingly let things be taken out of his hands. Sometimes she would send him on small missions, to shake him out of his spellbound broodings. She would ask him to go down to the pond, “and report back on your findings.” At first in the winter, he would have to work hard for interesting gleanings to take back to her—animal tracks on the frozen pond, an air bubble caught in the creamy ice inshore around the heron’s branch, the number of trees deep he could count in the leafless screen of woods across the pond, viewed from the oak where they hung the towel. When the grudging days of early spring arrived, and the trees were fretted more with undergrowth, the views foreshortened, but there was more to report. One day in late April, he had taken her back a box turtle, patterned in a smart brown and yellow plaid, but built a little too high off the ground, like the old Volkswagen Beetle, to be aerodynamically sound. MacIver had put him on the quilt, and the little fellow had finally stuck his head out of his shell and taken a couple of steps, before pooping quite impressively right there on the bed. Margaret had given him the Scottish name of Archibald, and insisted that MacIver take him back to exactly the same leaves in which he had found him, with the added gift of a lettuce leaf for his pains. She died three days after that, on the first soft day that promised full-blooded spring.

As Margaret had feared would be the case, MacIver did not do well after she had gone. He let himself go, and he let the house go. He knew it was happening and he felt bad about it as far as the house was concerned, but he didn’t seem able to do much about it, except fitfully. His concentration was gone, along with the object of his attention. There was a backlog of work due on the house; they had loved it and cared for it year after year, as it needed and deserved, but in the fall MacIver had persuaded Margaret against all previous habits to delay some of the chores to the spring; they should hunker down and enjoy each other quietly, without ladders looming and workers banging. She had been sick enough to agree, but the house was showing its frailty now quite markedly; it was no longer a matter of cleaning gutters, checking storm windows, and calling the exterminator to keep the termites at bay. The fabric of the house was sagging visibly on the eastern side, and he was sure it needed a new roof. And what else? He mentally checked off the items he knew about—siding on the windward face of the house, boiler, always feeble, cheating him of more and more degrees against the thermostat (unless it was the cold, or the windows?), two sagging, buckled gutters. In the end, he did not call the contractors, because he did not want them to open up the house and tell him how bad it was. And he did not call them because he still did not want their banging, their company, or even their secret sympathy. Bereavement seemed to work on him as a kind of blanket allergy, making him edgy and irritable to all the outside world.

And of course it was reciprocal: the world receded on him. Even his own Blind Pool seemed to shun him as an interloper. The lens of the water, which had taken in a full orbit of creatures and their activities, their presence and their shadows, and held them for key moments for the two of them to share and admire, now stared blankly upwards, blind indeed. He could tell that his ability to focus, to fix on a detail and hold it, had deserted him, and the loss of it had weakened his grasp on the place. He did not really seem able to see what was happening anymore.


From the Hardcover edition.
Peter Pouncey|Author Q&A

About Peter Pouncey

Peter Pouncey - Rules for Old Men Waiting
Peter Pouncey was born in Tsingtao, China, of English parents. At the end of World War II, after several dislocations and separations, the family reassembled in England, and Pouncey was educated there in boarding schools and at Oxford. A classicist, former dean of Columbia College, and president emeritus of Amherst College, Peter Pouncey lives in New York City and northern Connecticut with his wife. This is his first novel.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A


Is it true that this novel was twenty-five years in the making?
Twenty-three actually. The first part I can remember writing can be dated to early fall 1981: the story of a boy taking his mother rowing on a lake in the highlands of Scotland. The boy, as far as I remember, had no name. The sequel to the rowing in the present book is the same boy taking (and putting back the next day) a Golden Eagle’s egg from its nest on a cliff above the lake, which was not written till 1991 at the earliest; by then he was called MacIver. So it was all a slow evolution and a complex series of layers and accretions. There was no particular agitation, or even urgency, about the slow rate of progress. I was heavily engaged elsewhere at the time, studying the writings of the ancient historians or being a college dean or president, and I looked at these escapes into my imagination as a relief and relaxation from sometimes more stressful preoccupations. In the end, there was a chest filled with pages to draw on. And when you are two-thirds of a century old, it is borne in on you that this may be the last chance to complete what you most wanted to do.

You mentioned your work on the ancient historians. What influence have the classics generally had on your writing?
A strong influence, beginning with my efforts to master two precise languages, Latin and Greek. In these heavily inflected languages, (i.e. they have many cases, extra tenses, moods etc) the form of words is altered to convey exactly the function that the word plays in the particular sentence, and one’s attention to each word, to its ending, to the rhythmic contribution it makes in its context, is a very good spur to paying attention to one’s own language. In England, we were schooled from an early age in trying to write in both languages in prose and poetry, and it was useful. There is no doubt that an only averagely educated citizen of antiquity would have a more nuanced eye and ear for how language behaves than his modern counterpart.
When it comes to literature, the biggest influence on me is probably the historian Thucydides; I first read a chunk of him in Greek for my English A levels (roughly equivalent to American Advanced Placement exams). The passage we were responsible for was book II of the Peloponnesian War, and included the startlingly juxtaposed Funeral Oration and Plague — the glory of Athens and instant decay, high-flying rhetoric and depressing fact. I was at once fascinated and troubled by it and still am. Since then other works have exerted their magic on me, perhaps Homer and Herodotus most of all.

Could you talk about your experience as a university professor?
It’s a great profession, especially if and when you get past the impulse to perform in class. It took me a while: for quite a few years, I was more preoccupied with enjoying myself and putting on a show, rather than in having the students actually learn anything. On a good day, I could be moderately funny. Later, when life had sobered me up a bit, I became quite absorbed by the students’ progress in learning, spending more time on their written work and enjoying it. It is a wonderful thing to be able to see a young person’s mind wake up to an idea and run with it, and to attend with close concentration to the words on a page and make them deliver an unseen secret. With that kind of engagement, the students often teach the teacher, and that is the highest reward you can be given. MacIver certainly knew all this.

How similar is MacIver’s life and personality to your own?
There was originally a chronology attached to the book (we scrapped it because it voided suspense), and I noticed that I gave MacIver my own birthday. But that may be as far as it goes. He is larger than life and lacks caution, cutting swathes through situations, too dangerous to be trusted with the management of any complex mechanism or institution. I’m not sure I would want to associate with him on a daily basis–he is a little too large for the room he fills. I think he is a noble old warrior, though, and I admire him in his honesty, his absence of self-pity, the immediate passion with which he gives himself to experience. It would be a mistake to equate his bluntness with any kind of dullness of mind or spirit.

There is much emphasis on MacIver’s Scottishness, though he seems to have spent at least half his life in America. What about his Americanness?
Good question. He is an American as well. There is no trace of old-country stuffiness about him; he belongs in a large landscape. He is entirely democratic about the people he’s interested in–Ben Winterbourne, the gas attack victim; Bonnie, the check-out girl. Of course, he’s also a ham, and likes to summon the skirr of the bagpipes with his accent at strategic social moments. But there was no question of his ever dying anywhere but in his auld American wooden house, in the auldest part of America.

Is MacIver’s wife, Margaret, too good for him?
Of course, she is and he knows it, and knows that if he ever attained the state of grace it was through her gentleness. But she also loves him — for his honesty and the fact that he is big-hearted as well as large-framed, and that he is capable of quite delicate insight. And also, interestingly, she likes his anger, when it is righteous indignation.

Why does MacIver choose to tell a story for his work?
I think he’s weary of himself. The internal turmoil of grief and dislocation after Margaret’s death allows him no respite from which to make sense of his predicament. The story moves his reflections to neutral ground, as it were, pulls him outside himself, interests him in a larger world once more, and thus indirectly, by the inferences he draws, gives him an avenue back to self-knowledge. It was a smart move, I think

Rules for Old Men Waiting deals largely with wars of the twentieth century. What is your first memory of war?
I have written in a memoir that I’m working on, called The Broken Times, about coming to myself near the pleasantly peaceful city of Victoria, British Columbia, on the southern point of Vancouver Island. We had washed up there, looking across the water at Mount Baker, at the outbreak of World War II, and were there through the war. It was fine for us children, but a desperately anxious time for our mother: “Bereft of her husband incommunicado with Chiang Kai-shek’s government in the far west of China, of her father and brother in a Japanese interment camp near Shanghai, and of her own mother in the blitz in London, my mother listened in the kitchen to the BBC news, hearing the Axis extending its reach through the world on an ever-widening front. We three children listened with her in silence, sensing her fear, and fearing it.”

How do the wars of the twentieth century relate to our times?

There is no question that the follies of 20th century are the same as our own. The scale of consequences rises: recently we celebrated 150 years since the Charge of the Light Brigade. On that day English cavalry charged the Turkish artillery batteries in the Crimea, and only 195 out of 600 returned. On the first of July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, there were 67,000 British casualties before lunch — waves of perhaps the finest volunteer force ever assembled sent as infantry across level ground into the teeth of modern machine guns, some of whose barrels became red-hot with the ceaseless slaughter they were dishing out. The pattern is in fact invariably the same: the generals and politicians almost never know what they are sending their men into. It was the same with Athens, in the middle of the war that would destroy her: she decides in 415 BCE to send another expedition to conquer Sicily. An army of 40,000 prime troops and a fleet of 200 ships were comprehensively destroyed. Jingoistic slogans seem almost always to win out over considered thought.

Why does MacIver choose to die alone?
Here we are on delicate ground. Many animals, including beloved family dogs, feel they want to go through their last ordeal by themselves, and withdraw. But that is slightly different. I feel that MacIver is one of those people who know that, for all their public strutting and fretting, their real self lies deep within. It’s nothing to do with the subconscious, or anything like that; in fact, it is the part of them that thinks and feels most clearly, most quietly, most deeply. It never lies, so it is the source of their integrity. They are most themselves when they are in touch with that inner core. So those who know and love such people recognize the need they have, and leave them time and space to retire to their private place. I imagine Margaret often let her husband slip away to his. The Roman philosopher Seneca has a line: Whenever I go abroad among men, I return home less a man. MacIver and I may be alike on this: we both feel we do best when we keep to our private cells. At the end, of course, he had outlived closeness with all those he had cared for, so his choice to die alone has a kind of necessity about it.

Ultimately, do you think that your book is depressing?

Not at all, for two reasons. The first is that early in the book MacIver, after all sorts of shakiness, takes hold of his life again, and keeps hold of it, with mental and spiritual vigor and bite, to the very end. We would all want that to be the way we go; MacIver is very fortunate in his ending. The second reason is the matter of a love that was almost lost but is found again: the arc, as it were, of love restored to confidence and ease, from doubt and an impossible loss, emerges ascendant on the far side of the sinking war narrative, and rescues the whole from darkness, I believe.

How does it feel to be on the threshold of finally publishing your novel at the age of 67?

It feels pretty good at this point. But just as you don’t count pages, you don’t count years either. The fact is I want to complete three more books–another novel, a memoir, and a translation of Lucretius–and I hope I shall drive them to conclusion on a rising trajectory of strong writing. There is a pleasant sense of urgency nudging me on, and clearly time is a factor. But I’ll take whatever I’m given with relatively good grace–at least for me.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

Advance Praise for Rules for Old Men Waiting

“A deeply sensual, moving, thrilling novel that calls for a second and third reading–it is that rich.”
Frank McCourt

“This is a wonderful novel of a man’s experience, and it touches every chord: a wholeness to which each incident crucially contributes so that wars and loves and losses, and mortality itself, are lived by the reader. The book is charged with the excitement of intelligent existence–and distinguished, above all, by its great humanity.”
Shirley Hazzard

“A stunning piece of work, beautifully composed and finished. It’s very much its own thing, but in its reach, intelligence, and power it recalls Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Marai’s Embers, along with something of Norman MacLean. Old Men belongs on that same shelf.”
Ward Just

“A tender, beautifully expressed rumination on love and loss by a highly intelligent and marvelously brave old man.”
Louis Begley

“Mr. Pouncey writes with enough style and elegance to bring envy into the heart of many a good novelist.”
Norman Mailer


From the Hardcover edition.

Awards

NOMINEE 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Eurasia)

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