NER’s first Managing Editor, M. Robin Barone, remembers “Grace-Notes from Sicily” by Walter Arndt, an essay published in NER 1.3 (1979).
I came on as Managing Editor of New England Review when the magazine was little more than an idea. I had never been a managing editor, let alone a founding managing editor, but I had been editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper, was getting my degree in English from Dartmouth College, and was too young to know that this project was far beyond my capabilities. As we got the magazine started, working very long hours, often seven days a week, we were helped and mentored by many generous people, especially Paula Dietz and Fred Morgan at the Hudson Review.
It was intense, but it was also exciting and sometimes hilariously funny—like the time we found ourselves trying to convince the United States Postal Service that our IRS 501(c)(3) designation did, in fact, entitle us to the nonprofit rate for mailings. We went to Boston for an appointment with some higher-up at the USPS headquarters on Milk Street and spent hours in that building shuffling from one office to another. The more people we talked to, the more convinced we were that the enormous USPS Manual existed solely to perpetuate itself, and there was no way on earth we were going to get through its maze of rules and regulations to the designation we so badly needed.
Finally, as we were waiting in an empty office for the umpteenth official to meet with us, a sheepish slip of a man we’d never seen snuck into the room, turned the pages of the ever-present Postal Manual, pointed wordlessly to a subsection under a category we had never considered trying, and slunk out of the room. When the official whose office it was joined us, we suggested to him that we had erred in our application, and that this was category under which we should have applied for the nonprofit mailing rate. We were approved, almost unwillingly, and left the building in high spirits. We walked out into the bright sunshine of a suddenly glorious day—and straight into a procession led by a camel! A live camel, walking down the middle of Milk Street, in downtown Boston. Somehow, it just fit with the morning’s events.
Maybe that trip into the bizarre world of the postal service is the reason Walter Arndt’s essay came to mind when I was asked for a particularly memorable piece from the magazine. His “Grace-Notes from Sicily” is a delicious send-up of the Italian postal service in Taormina. He likens the atmosphere in the post office to “the imperturbable, barely undulating calm of a multivascular aquarium inhabited by five grave, not unkindly but profoundly preoccupied fish.” The essay goes on to describe the various maneuverings of the fish as an unwary client tries to send a package of books to himself in Turkey.
Nearly forty years after first reading it, I still laugh out loud at Arndt’s wonderful prose. Walter was a true man of letters, a world-renowned scholar and translator of German, Russian, and Polish. He could speak more than seventeen languages, and once broke my husband’s heart by telling Sydney—who had gone to Walter for help with learning Hungarian—that no one could learn Hungarian, not even the Hungarians. Walter said he himself had tried, and had failed.
Despite holding post-graduate degrees in Business Administration, Political Science and Economics, Engineering, and Comparative Literature, Walter Arndt was a gentle and humble man. He was sweet and funny and generous to the end of his life, and this piece offers anyone who reads it a glimpse into his very lovely mind.
P.S. Why the camel? It was bearing a sign, advertising the opening of a new Middle Eastern restaurant.
“Grace-Notes from Sicily” by Walter Arndt
M. Robin Barone, a 1978 Dartmouth College graduate, is one of the founding editors of New England Review, serving as its Managing Editor from 1977 to 1982. After leaving NER, she attended Vermont Law School, graduating summa cum laudein 1986. She married Sydney Lea in 1983; they have five children. Barone is an attorney-mediator, an adjunct professor of law at Vermont Law School, on the board of a number of nonprofit organizations, and Chair of the Newbury Village Trustees.